How do you start defining Billy Payne’s legacy at Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament?
Was he the construction chairman? The digital chairman? The grow-the-game chairman? The gender-unity chairman?
Perhaps the only way to encapsulate Payne’s 11 years at the helm of the world’s most prominent private club is to call him the millennial chairman.
“He brought the club into 21st Century, but in a way that has been super respectful of the history and tradition,” said one club member who calls Payne “the most impactful chairman since Clifford Roberts.”
“He has given his all.”
Billy Payne has given the Masters and its patrons more than anyone imagined in a decade of aggressive growth. A man who already left his mark by bringing the Olympics to Atlanta in 1996 – an accomplishment that earned him a larger-than-life statue in Centennial Olympic Park – made an even bigger impression in his home state as the steward of golf’s most iconic major championship.
Payne’s ambitious mission was inspired by spending time the last 11 years standing at the Masters entry gate talking to patrons – many of whom had no idea who he was – and listening to their stories. Often the first-time visitors stood out.
“Their expectations were so high,” Payne said. “It became one of our charges early on that we have to exceed their expectations. I think we do it pretty good. It’s a lot more going on than golf. We leave the golf to the pros. I’m in the hospitality business for the patrons.”
In that vein and with a bottomless budget, Payne vastly exceeded anything that even seemed feasible when he took the reins from Hootie Johnson. Other than the golf course, the Masters experience is barely recognizable from 2006 and exceeds the blueprint set out by founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts.
There’s the world’s most pristine practice facility where the old parking lot used to sit and the world’s prettiest parking lot where an old neighborhood used to be.
There’s a luxurious new press building where Berckmans Road used to roll through and 2018 will introduce a wide new patrons plaza with an enhanced merchandise and concession facilities where the old media center was situated.
There are elegant hospitality buildings where the old caddyshack used to be and a plush caddie clubhouse and VIP Berckmans Place pavilion where nothing used to be.
There are television studios and corporate partner cabins and an Amen Corner member’s retreat and upscale concession barns and bathroom facilities and tunnels all strewn throughout towering pines and hardwoods and shrubberies that blend in so well to the surroundings that you’d swear they existed forever where none of it existed before.
The campus improvements alone on such a profound scale in only a decade were enough for any chairman to rest his laurels. But being the construction chairman barely gets started on the sweeping impact of Payne’s tenure.
Expanding the Masters’ reach may be Payne’s primary legacy.
Payne will always be remembered as the chairman who finally admitted female members to the America’s most prominent all-male club. A decade after his predecessor refused to be bullied “at the point of a bayonet” into letting women join, Payne invited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore with open arms – a gesture of inclusiveness that set the tone for subsequent broken barriers at the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and Muirfield.
In 2009 he joined the R&A in establishing what’s now called the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, lending immediate credibility to the event by offering a coveted invitation to the Masters for the winner. His desire to inspire future star golfers in emerging markets quickly introduced current world No. 3 Hideki Matsuyama and a 14-year-old from China named Tianlang Guan to the global golf audience.
In 2015, that mission spread to another hemisphere with the Latin America Amateur Championship aimed at similar goals.
Closer to home, Augusta National joined the USGA and PGA of America in 2013 to establish the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship with the ultimate carrot of letting both girls and boys ages 7-15 compete at Augusta National on the eve of Masters week. The televised event targets an even younger demographic.
His youth outreach includes a junior pass program to allow kids the opportunity to attend the Masters for free with a badge holder. He also took the unprecedented step of allowing Augusta National’s iconic course to be used in an EA Sports/Tiger Woods video game, raising more money around the world to support the Masters Foundation’s expanding charitable efforts.
Payne’s modern vision for the Masters broke new ground on the digital horizon. Live streaming brought more of the Masters into more homes around the world. He ushered in a new era of online applications that has made practice and tournament badges available to a wider audience.
For golf’s more traditional crowd, Payne phased in a new set of honorary starters that reunited the Big Three on the first tee for five years. With some streamlining of the qualification requirements, he also returned the popular automatic exemptions to PGA Tour winners.
The only element of Augusta National and the Masters that doesn’t bear Payne’s fingerprints is the golf course itself. He largely resisted any altering of the expanded course he inherited stewardship over. While Hootie Johnson added more than 500 yards, hundreds of trees and a second cut that constitutes Augusta National’s version of “rough” in an effort to keep the course relevant in the face of modern technology, Payne was happy to let it settle in. Other than tee boxes being expanded forward on a handful of holes and some tweaking to the edges of a few greens, the course is mostly the same as he found it in 2006.
The most prominent course alteration under Payne came courtesy of Mother Nature, as an ice storm destroyed the famous Eisenhower Tree that guarded the left side of the 17th fairway. Payne preserved cuttings from the loblolly pine to create potential descendents should any future chairman want to replace it.
Payne will leave it up to successor Fred Ridley to decide what to do with holes 4, 5 and 13 using the land acquired from Augusta Country Club behind Amen Corner and the rerouting of Berckmans Road. The incoming chairman will have plenty of time and energy to focus on the course since Payne saw through “the last we have on the drawing board” in terms of the patron experience.
“I think all chairmen who have followed Mr. Roberts and Mr. Jones, who was then president, we’re custodians,” Payne said. “We’re not here to make a name for ourselves and not here to say I’m better than the guy who came before or after me. We should be judged by only were we able to put in force and apply the mandates and to strive for perfection that we inherited from our founders. My job is nothing more than that. That’s not what we do. We had our chairman, we had our president. We sit here and we try embrace what we learned from them.”
Though Payne never knew Augusta National’s founders, it’s safe to say no chairman embraced their pursuit of perfection more aggressively than Payne as he steered the club into the new millennium.