Billy Payne, who welcomed the first female members at Augusta National Golf Club, embraced digital technology to promote the Masters Tournament and sought new ways to grow golf, is stepping down as chairman.
Payne, 69, will retire from the position when Augusta National opens its club season Oct. 16, and he will be replaced by Fred S. Ridley. Payne will assume the title of chairman emeritus, the club said in a news release Wednesday.
Payne served 11 years as chairman, and said the time was right for the 65-year-old Ridley to take over the club and tournament.
“I think he’ll be, as I tried to be, another great custodian,” Payne said Tuesday in an interview with The Augusta Chronicle. “I think all chairmen after our first two founders are custodians of their dreams and aspirations. We try to maintain it and, if we can, make it a little better. He’s going to do that beautifully.”
Ridley, a former U.S. Amateur winner, resides in Tampa and is the seventh chairman in the club and tournament’s history. He is the first chairman to have played in the Masters: he played three consecutive years, 1976-78, and missed the cut each time.
Payne is stepping down after several notable achievements, including the admission of the club’s first female members in 2012. Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore were invited to join nearly a decade after the club’s membership practices were criticized by a national women’s organization.
“It was fantastic,” Payne said of the female members. “I’ve said repeatedly I don’t really make a distinction. I want to beat Condi Rice out of her $5, too. They’re golfers and they’re friends.
“All of our women members have been wonderful, and there are more on the way soon. They’re wonderful additions to our club.”
With golf struggling to attract new players because of time and money, Payne joined forces with golf’s governing bodies to create the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. The annual event for children ages 7-15 attracts thousands of youngsters who strive to reach the finals held at Augusta National on the eve of the Masters.
Payne and the game’s ruling bodies also created two new amateur tournaments, the Asia-Pacific Amateur and Latin America Amateur. He dangled the ultimate carrot - a Masters berth - to give each tournament an immediate boost.
“The grow the game initiatives have become increasingly important,” Payne said. “It’s always been a part of the culture of Augusta. I’ve said several times, the big difference now is we have more resources to invest. To some it seems we have a larger presence. We are trying to meet what we believe to be our obligation, and do it rather aggressively.”
Payne vastly increased the tournament’s digital presence, bringing the latest in television technology to the broadcasts. He also expanded content available on the tournament Website with live video channels and a tracking feature that enabled patrons to follow the shots of each player in the tournament.
Payne’s predecessor, Hootie Johnson, oversaw two major renovations to Augusta National during his tenure. Other than a few minor adjustments, Payne left the course largely untouched. The club recently acquired land from neighboring Augusta Country Club near the section of holes known as Amen Corner, but no plans for changes have been announced.
“There’s a time for everything,” Payne said. “I think his (Johnson) timing was right, and he addressed significant needs of the golf course.”
Payne focused on carrying the Southern style of architecture throughout the club’s grounds.
“Operationally, of course, we’ve grown, so we needed more space,” he said. “But it doesn’t have to be ugly space. It can be beautiful space, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”
To that end, Payne transformed Augusta National’s grounds with an aggressive program that included improvements in parking, on-course amenities, hospitality and even how patrons arrived at the course with the realignment of Berckmans Road.
Earlier this year, a new Press Building and Tournament Headquarters structure were added to the landscape along Washington Road. For the 2018 Masters, a new merchandise and concession area will be unveiled along the main patron corridor and a new administration building will be ready for use.
All of those achievements don’t come as a surprise to those who know him best.
“Billy’s an unusual person in that he’s really good at the 50,000-foot picture, but he’s also really good at the detail,” one club member said. “Most people are one or the other, but he’s like both.”
The club member also marveled at Payne’s ability to bring the leading golf organizations together for a common good.
“Billy was really the first chairman to embrace that the Masters is the Mona Lisa of sports,” he said. “We have a responsibility to the game, how are we going to grow the game? There was a lot more inclusion. Before it might have been more isolated.”
But Payne’s been a natural leader since his college days. He played football at the University of Georgia from 1966-1968 and won All-Southeastern Conference honors in his final season.
In the late 1980s, Payne turned his attention to helping Atlanta win a bid for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Payne and his team, including former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador Andrew Young, successfully brought the Olympics to Atlanta.
Payne had visions of bringing golf back to the Olympics, and he wanted Augusta National as the venue. Club Chairman Jack Stephens agreed, but Atlanta City Council balked at the idea.
Payne joined Augusta National a year after the Olympics and served as chairman of the Masters Media Committee from 2000-2006.
In retirement, he hopes to play more golf if his back allows him to do so. And he looks forward to getting out on the golf course to see the action during the Masters, a luxury he couldn’t afford during his chairmanship.
He laughed when asked about handing over the reins to Ridley, who played golf at the University of Florida. Georgia and Florida, of course, are fierce rivals in football.
“I know, it’s tough,” he said. “And of course, we’ve already made our bets for this year.”