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Michaux: Payne proves prescient of game's global growth

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Augusta National Golf Club’s global growth initiatives are spreading as quickly as kudzu.

With the 5-year-old Asian-Pacific Amateur already producing banner headline stars, the club will partner with the R&A and the USGA to bring the model to Latin America – which for the purposes of this new endeavor stretches from Bermuda to Tierra del Fuego.

Masters Tournament chairman Billy Payne and his cohorts from golf’s governing bodies announced Wednesday in Argentina the formation of the new Latin America Amateur Championship. The first event will be played Jan. 15-18, 2015, at Pilar Golf outside Buenos Aires, with the champion earning an invitation into the 2015 Masters less than three months later.

“We believe this event will be motivating to current and future generations of golfers and, one day, create heroes that will inspire others to give the game a try,” said Payne, who had one of those inspirations seated on the front row in a green jacket – 2009 Masters champion and 2013 runner-up Angel Cabrera. “This belief has guided us well through the early successes of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship and, with the collective expertise in guiding the game of golf provided by the R&A and the USGA, we are hopeful in achieving equally exciting results.”

Whatever skepticism there was that a neophyte competition in a relative golfing outpost could provide worthy competitors for Augusta in April were squashed by the success of Payne’s first foray.

The Asian version that started in 2009 has, as R&A chief executive Peter Dawson put it, “exceeded our wildest expectations.” The 2010 and ’11 winner, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, made the Masters cut twice and has already risen to No, 24 in the world at the tender age of 21. The 2012 winner, Tianlang Guan, became the youngest golfer in history to make the cut in a major when he was 14 last April and finished tied for 58th at Augusta.

“Combine opportunity with inspiration, some miracles are going to happen,” Payne said.

The Latin America Amateur champion will get even more opportunities to create miracles, with the USGA stepping in to offer extra incentives. The winner and runner-up will get exemptions into the final stages of qualifying for the U.S. and British Opens, while the champion will receive full exemptions to the U.S. and British Amateurs as well as any other USGA amateur events he is eligible for.

“We’ve proven that golf can create role models,” Payne said, saying this venture will “attempt to duplicate – no, to do better – than what we’ve accomplished in Asia.”

While Argentina and several other Latin nations have a rich golfing history dating back a century, most of the 27 nations that will be represented in the LAAC have little tradition in the game. Combine this with golf’s return to the Olympics in 2016 in Brazil, and that one-two punch could provide the spark of inspiration where it had no chance of igniting before.

“By partnering together we believe we can positively impact this region of the world where golf is already growing,” said USGA executive director Mike Davis.

Payne hinted five years ago that expansion of Bobby Jones’ beloved amateur opportunities would extend to other regions, but he believed that might come at the hands of future club chairmen. After launching the Asia-Pacific Amateur in a market where Augusta National has focused most of its growth efforts with numerous special exemptions the last decade, he called that an “initial target.”

With Masters invitations now being handed to champions in the U.S., British, Asia-Pacific and Latin America amateurs, the only remaining global market without a dedicated entry into Augusta is Africa.

“To the extent we have adequate resources and partners to help us accomplish that goal, we will not be restricted geographically in the future,” Payne said in 2009. “However, that also presupposes that this first attempt through time will in fact produce the results that we think it will and in fact bring some converts and enthusiasm among the next generation to the game of golf. So if this Asian effort proves that theory correct, then I think it’s logical to assume that – given if we stand the test of resources and partners – we would at least entertain the thought of going other places.”

Little did he know then how quickly his growth mission would accelerate. Payne has made growing the game a hallmark of his term at chairman. Since taking over from Hootie Johnson in 2006, Payne has helped launched two major amateur events and, along with the USGA and PGA of America, created the junior Drive, Chip & Putt Championship that will conclude its first competition at Augusta National the Sunday before Masters week.

He also developed a program for junior golfers to attend the Masters with badge holders and launched a video game to support the charitable Masters Tournament Foundation he established. In 2012, Payne ended Augusta National’s long-standing policy of exclusive male membership by inviting Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore to join the club.

It all adds up to an impressive résumé of leadership in trying to build the game of golf globally.

Now the Latin America Amateur is “kind of a logical extension of ways that these three organizations feel we ought to be investing in the future of the game on a global basis,” Payne said.

“So, a lot going on in the world of development. But I think importantly, we’ve adopted, I believe, a better strategy in that we are all doing it together.”

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