In his inaugural state-of-Xanadu-address in 2007, Billy Payne waxed on about attending his first Masters as a Georgia sophomore, how he made the drive from Athens with a fraternity brother in a pink 1947 Chevrolet coupe that he shared with his sister, how he was awed by Augusta National’s beauty.
The pleasantries ended soon after the questions began and the subject of the club’s exclusionary membership policies broached Payne’s air space. Somebody asked if he was the man to bring Augusta National “into the 21st century.”
“Irrelevant,” he responded. “There are two personalities which will always define Augusta National: Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts. All the rest of us just came and went, and I’m going to fall into that latter category.”
A nice sentiment. It played to the membership. But six years later, we can safely assume that when Payne steps down as Augusta National’s chairman, he will have left a thumbprint as conspicuous as the bunker that fronts the 12th green at Amen Corner.
There are two women members on the grounds. There’s a 14-year-old player from China who qualified through an amateur tournament that Payne created. There’s a Masters video game and a Masters phone app and a Masters junior program. There’s a top-1-percenters’ equivalent of a punt-pass-and-kick contest. (Wonder if kids from the 99-percenters will purchase irons from consignment stores and seek out junkyard tires to practice chipping accuracy?)
As a bonus for Payne, TMZ’s pursuit of Woods seems to have slowed to a crawl on Washington Road.
For William Porter Payne, this is as close to bliss as he has been since he proclaimed, “I think I’ll run the Olympics. OK, who can drive a bus?”
The tone of his news conference Wednesday was light. Almost celebration-like.
One half-expected him to walk into the interview room through smoke and huge inflatable magnolias, maybe with Toby Keith’s “How do you like me now?!” blaring in the background.
In last year’s news conference, he seemingly was trailed by a rain cloud. He struggled to keep the focus on the tournament and the club’s accomplishments. Despite his attempt to put out brush fires, he faced an assault of 10 questions on the gender issue, including this inside fastball: “What would you say to your granddaughters?” (Answer: “My conversations with my granddaughters are also personal.”)
Payne didn’t gloat (much) Wednesday. He also maintained the club’s tradition of responding to specific questions with non-specific answers. Payne speaks as an impressionist would paint.
“I really don’t characterize much of what we’ve done as change,” he said. “What we’ve done is do what we’re supposed to do, and that is to be a beacon in the world of golf and to do our best to influence others to want to be a part of it. And I don’t call that change. I call that doing what our founder and all chairmen have done historically in the past.”
Let’s assume temporary amnesia. Clifford Roberts, the clubs’ co-founder, is infamous for once saying: “As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black.”
Roberts’ beacon shined a different light.
Jack Nicklaus referred to Payne as a “very, very forward thinker. With what his involvement was in the Olympics, his idea of forward thinking and not staying behind the times has been really great for Augusta.”
Woods, who had long sidestepped questions about Augusta not allowing women, this week called Payne’s decision “fantastic. It was the right timing.”
OK, some context. The man didn’t end women’s suffrage. But he finessed the club’s membership into going in a direction that his predecessor, Hootie “Point of a Bayonet” Johnson wouldn’t. He has opened some doors and changed the talking points.
The two biggest non-Tiger stories this week were his creation: membership and Tianlang Guan.
I asked Payne if he had a list of things he had hoped to accomplish when he stepped in for Johnson. His response was predictably evasive, sounding like a football coach being asked about a game plan.
“When I took over I didn’t know anything about being chairman of Augusta National,” he said. “The ideas began to evolve as I became aware of the immense talent that we have here, not only with our staff, but among the members who have this fire in their belly and who are willing to contribute their very significant intellect to the manifestation of what we all want the Masters to be. What I have done is just kind of pointed them in a direction and turned them loose.”
Payne was clear about one thing. When asked (half-jokingly) if he would push for golf as an Olympic sport if Atlanta hosted the 2024 Games, he responded, “I won’t be chairman of Augusta National in 2024.”
So his countdown is inside of 11 years. Sufficient time for a few more changes.