Billy Payne knows how to impress

2016 04 Billy Payne
• Payne is the Chairman of Augusta National
• 'I'll serve... then fade into the background,' he says
• Celebrates ten years at the helm of the Masters this year

THE MASTERS | Billy Payne

Augusta National chairman Billy Payne knows how to hold a room, and make its occupants laugh. In my experience of golf body administration, that’s rare.

Payne, 68, is celebrating ten years in charge at Augusta National and marked it yesterday by announcing that the Masters would be giving an exemption in 2017 to the player who wins the gold medal at this summer’s Olympics in Rio.

Having sat through my fair share of golf ‘state of the union’ pressers, it’s safe to say few stick in the memory. It’s tricky to pin-point why those at the helm of golf administration get a hard time, but it’s usually to do with sticking to tradition. To me, ‘tradition’ usually translates as boring. Payne, though, is anything but dull.

He seems to be cut from a different cloth. Perhaps it’s his accent. William Porter ‘Billy’ Payne, a Georgia native, who, in his ten years at Augusta, has made some big changes, knows how to overcome a stumble and how to dominate a room. He let slip by referring to the Masters as a “toonamint”, something his predecessor Hootie Johnson would have uttered. He just smiled it off.

Martin Dempster, the golf correspondent for The Scotsman newspaper, recently offered a wonderful interpretation of the now former chairman of Scottish Golf, Hamish Grey, by saying that Grey had done a very capable job but lacked the personality to hold a room. Thinking about it in hindsight, that is very true.

Billy Payne a 'pleasant surprise'

Payne was a very pleasant surprise. Considering I’ve never had the opportunity to see him at work, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

His opening gambit was lengthy - 1,450 words to be precise - and you sense he knew what was coming. There has been talk all week about the changes behind the 13th, something Augusta National has yet to comment on. Jack Nicklaus opened the floodgates yesterday by talking openly about what Augusta could do. But he ended with “change the friggin’ golf ball” to succinctly summarise his stance. Payne didn’t have time to catch his breath before the first question was put to him. Doug Ferguson, the well-travelled golf writer for the Press Association, threw it out first.

Q: “Mr. Payne, what are your plans for the 13th hole?”

Billy Payne: “That was right off the bat, wasn’t it (laughs)?”

He’s got a sense of humour. I like him already.

The great talent of being in that position is using your personality to your advantage. I always thought that Peter Dawson failed to handle the ‘men only’ controversy at the R&A, and it caught up with him. There’s only so long you can bat off the enemy.

Payne dealt with various subjects with a mix a Southern charm and genuine interest. I had been warned to expect frequent nods to Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, and he didn’t disappoint. And why shouldn’t he? Talking about Jones must be the only time ‘tradition’ doesn’t evoke feelings of boredom.

Asked whether he was thinking of standing down from his position, Payne, again, was quick off the mark saying: “That committee hasn’t met yet.”

He added: “My goal is to serve whatever tenure that I serve and then fade into the background, because, as I’ve said multiple times, Augusta National has only two people who forever will be a part of their culture, and that’s Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones.”

Given the problems Tiger Woods and Fred Couple have had with back issues, Payne was asked to comment on his own back issues. He added that he was hoping to be ready to play golf again in June. Only problem is, Augusta National is closed in June. “We may, however, open it up for one day,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

Billy Payne - Press Conference

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