Billy Payne steps down at Augusta National

Billypayne

Billy Payne will now “fade into the background” at Augusta National Golf Club.

His words, not ours.

Payne is retiring as chairman at the age of 69 and has served in that role since 2006.

The Atlanta native was asked at the 2016 Masters what he would do if he were to vacate his position at golf’s most famous club.

“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.”

Payne chose his moments in the foreground wisely. He would attend the Champions Dinner on the Tuesday during Masters week, then address the media the following morning, before disappearing until the Green Jacket presentation on the Sunday night.

And he had a certain skill at dodging tricky questions. He opted, as it were, to remain as out-of-the-picture as much as possible.

This year, following the first Champions Dinner at the club since Arnold Palmer’s passing, he was asked if there were any stories to tell.

“Yes, ma’am, there were,” said Payne with typical Southern charm. “But I am an invited guest to that event and I’m not a member of the Champion’s Club, because I never won at the Masters.”

Under his stewardship, he welcomed August National’s first female members in former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore back in 2012. Three years before that it was Payne who created the Asia-Pacific Amateur and declared that the winner would get an invite to the Masters. Hideki Matsuyama won it twice, giving him and Asian players a major boost on the biggest stage in golf. Two years later, that concept extended to the Latin America Amateur. Critics said it was simply a case of chasing TV ratings worldwide. Matsuyama, now the world No.2, might disagree with that.

As written previously, Payne knew how to control a room. Despite protestations from even the mouthiest of journalists who took umbrage to how Augusta National went about its business, few dared question his methods. He was completely in control. Unlike his predecessor, Hootie Johnston, who passed away last month, Payne rarely flinched. If there was one thing that could be said about Johnston, he let the ‘Martha Burke years’ get under his skin.

Payne, it seemed, took everything in his stride. He has overseen the Masters evolve into golf’s biggest ‘brand’, turning it into a massive money-spinner. Evidence of that was the construction of the media centre at Augusta National, which cost a reported $62m and was built in ten months. It is only used for a few weeks of the year.

He has also been at the helm of recent acquirement of various land on the boundary and periphery of Augusta National as the club, it is believed, is keen to protect its borders. Just recently, it acquired land from Augusta Country Club, which sits alongside the 13th and shares Rae’s Creek. The move will allow Augusta National to expand its tee box at 13 should it wish to. The club has been buying land for years, aided in part by Payne’s expertise in real estate. He is the chairman of an Atlanta-based real estate investment firm.

In 2011, he  sanctioned the use of Augusta National in an EA Sports video game, which at the time was fronted by Tiger Woods. All proceeds from the game, according to Payne, would go into junior golf. Two years later Payne announced the creation of the Drive, Chip and Putt junior event, where kids qualified through hundreds of tournaments across America, with the tournament finale being played out on the Sunday before Masters week.

He is succeeded by Fred Ridley, a former USGA president, who was the chairman of the competition committees at the Masters. Ridley is the seventh chairman of the club and tournament. Those who previously held the post are Roberts (1933-77), Bill Lane (1977-80), Hord Hardin (1980-91), Jack Stephens (1991-98), Hootie Johnson (1998-2006) and Payne.

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