- Steve Hummer
Having drawn the Masters a map to the 21st century and eventually holding open the door for the first women members at Augusta National, Billy Payne announced Wednesday he was abdicating his chairmanship of America’s most famous and influential golf club.
Payne, who turns 70 in October, let it be known Wednesday that 11 years was enough leading an elite green-jacketed membership and serving as the single voice speaking for Augusta National and its florid April tournament. He retires as of Oct. 16 as the club’s sixth chairman, a line that dates to 1931 and co-founder Clifford Roberts.
Of his relatively lengthy tenure – only Roberts held the position longer – Payne told the AJC in advance of Wednesday’s announcement: “I wouldn’t grade myself other than to say I tried my best. I hope that people, principally the other members, are proud of what we were able to accomplish while I was chairman.”
Succeeding as the overseer of the home of the Masters will be 65-year-old Fred Ridley, a Florida real estate attorney and former U.S. Amateur champion who most recently has served as head of the tournament’s competition committee. Payne, the one-time Georgia Bulldogs lineman, is giving way to a one-time Florida Gators golfer.
Ridley is the reason, Payne said, that he felt now was the time to pass the torch (this one of the non-Olympic variety).
“When I became chairman,” Payne said, “my predecessor Hootie Johnson said the most important thing you’ll ever do is decide who will succeed you.
“I had to get my feet wet and make a few of my own mistakes first before I could identify the qualities I was looking for. Recently, I became convinced Fred Ridley has all of those qualities and then some. He’s immensely respected by the membership – loved by the membership. He’s crazy intelligent. Just the perfect guy. I hope history will say that in my most important responsibility I made a good decision. I know I did.”
Atlanta’s Payne, of course, had a life before moving into the Augusta National chairmanship in 2006. Most notably, he was the force behind bringing the 1996 Olympics to his hometown. He lobbied unsuccessfully at the time to include golf in the Olympic program, and to stage it at Augusta National. Controversy over the club’s exclusionary membership scotched the idea.
A year after the Olympics, Payne was brought into the small circle of Augusta National membership. Just nine years later, he was running the joint.
As chairman, Payne had the kind of authority lacking in many of life’s other pursuits. No one outranks the chairman on the august property off Washington Road. Not the richest of members – like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Nor the most impressively titled – like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Nor even Hall of Famers – like former Pittsburgh receiver Lynn Swann.
The Augusta National chairman is guardian of what former PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem once called the "strongest brand" in golf. In his care is the season’s first of golf’s majors, the one treated as a “tradition unlike any other” by its broadcast partners and the one that defines springtime in Georgia.
While Payne’s reign encompasses a wide range of changes, from pricey upgrades to the Augusta National practice facility and its media headquarters to reaching beyond the club’s high green border to spark grow-the-game initiatives in Asia and Latin America, it was the 2012 announcement that two women were joining the club that is bound to frame his legacy.
Payne prefers to think that development was in the works even before he arrived – and Rice and Darla Moore did not come on board until Payne’s sixth year as chairman. “It happened during our tenure, but no member becomes a member here at the spur of the moment,” he said. “It takes time and consideration. Any member you see coming has been on the list to become a member for a long time. There are no exceptions to that, including the ladies.”
Although he did appear to leave a verbal stickie note for the next guy in his office when he added, “And you will see more (women members).” There were three at last count.
Payne’s may have been Augusta National’s most ambitious era. Throughout, he tried to keep one foot in the Masters’ hidebound past and the other on the accelerator.
The footprint of the club expanded on two fronts, as it bought up land on one side for a massive free parking area and, recently, a piece of Augusta Country Club on another for possible future expansion of the iconic Amen Corner.
Payne’s evangelistic quest to grow golf was reflected in the children who showed up the Sunday of Masters week to compete in a drive, chip and putt championship and those others who witnessed the Masters itself thanks to a junior pass program. Globally, in partnership with golf’s ruling bodies, the club birthed championships in Asia and Latin America that funneled new players to the Masters.
His business sense was evident with the opening of an opulent hospitality area, Berckman’s Place, beyond the fifth hole.
One Augusta National member, speaking on background as is required of all but the chairman, said Payne’s greatest legacy was his ability to galvanize the membership behind a common vision. Even those who may have resisted some change would be proudly adopting it like it was their own idea by the time it was in place, the member noted.
For the 2018 Masters, Payne anticipates being able to actually venture out on the course and witness some live golf – an impossibility for a chairman obsessed with the day-to-day details in April. “I’m really looking forward to enjoying it with my family. It’s going to be fun,” he said.
The emotion currently in play, Payne said, was gratitude.
“(The time as chairman) has given me an abundance of friends,” he said. “I now proudly call all of my best friends those people who share with me the privilege of wearing the green jacket. This is a very close-knit family. There is a lot of love that passes around here. And I’ve certainly been a beneficiary of that and I’m exceeding grateful for it.”