Move hits home at First Tee

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Growing the game.

As a popular catch phrase in golfing circles for at least a decade, the concept of "growing the game" always struck me as a hollow notion that was more lip service than primary mission in such an exclusive sport. It seemed a lot like a politician promising "bipartisanship" or a beauty queen standing up in a bikini promoting "world peace."

Then along comes Billy Payne, who keeps chipping away at the innate cynicism that maybe everybody who wants to grow golf isn't simply trying to make a buck off of it.

The Augusta National Golf Club chairman has made utilizing the Masters Tournament brand to grow the game of golf the primary platform of his brief yet remarkable tenure. And the man keeps on making all the right moves.

In the latest in a series of surprising news bulletins to come out of the private golf club this fall, Payne makes the most welcoming gesture yet in the interest of promoting golf to a new audience. This time he's offering one of the most coveted privileges the club can present -- free admittance for kids to the Masters.

That's right. Bring-a-kid-to-the-Masters day starts in 2008.

Beginning in April, kids ranging from 8 to 16 years old can attend the Masters free of charge on tournament days when accompanied by an accredited patron, which is someone attending the Masters who is the individual named on the series badge application. We're talking about an opportunity for thousands of kids from Thursday to Sunday to experience one of the most stimulating sporting events in the world.

"We want to inspire the next generation of golfers now," Payne said in a release. "We're serious about exposing youngsters to golf and the Masters."

It is an idea that simply blew away Jill Brown, the executive director of The First Tee of Augusta.

"I think it's a wonderful gesture on the part of the club to extend that opportunity to the kids," Brown said. "This is really welcome for me because parents or local community members who may have badges, there is an opportunity now for them to take a child with them. Now the kids can get excited about all the buzz that everybody else has always enjoyed but was not always willing to sacrifice a ticket for a child to go."

The invitation is in many ways an extension of The First Tee's mission to use golf as a teaching tool for core values to youngsters in the very age range Payne is trying to reach.

"It's just like someone inviting you to their home," Brown said. "You don't go to their house and jump on the sofa. You want to see this as an opportunity to see and enjoy and learn and be on their best behavior. Hopefully all of the people who take children with them will help them to understand what that opportunity means.

Augusta National has certainly invested in that concept of reaching a younger audience for years. It is one of the founding partners of The First Tee program, and has donated more than $10 million to The First Tee since 1998 and at least another $500,000 to the Tiger Woods Foundation. Much of the $12.5 million the club has given since 1997 to the Community Foundation of the CSRA has directly benefitted women, youth and the underprivileged.

Giving entrance to the Masters is another contribution.

"It's such a wide-open invitation that they gave," Brown said. "This I see as another form of their generosity on top of their financial generosity, and you can't help but wonder, 'What else will they think of?' "

Payne is continuously thinking of new things that deviate from the club's ultra-private history. He sees the Masters as a guiding beacon for golf across the world and believes a private club in a small corner of Georgia can have a global reach.

To that end, the club announced another initiative Thursday to attract those not lucky enough to be in Augusta in April. In 2008, the Masters will start televising the Par-3 Contest on its new partner network, ESPN. It will be a two-hour show of the unique, low-key event that nobody outside of Wednesday practice round ticket holders since 1960 has seen.

"It's an event everyone enjoys and we think it will demonstrate to kids just how fun golf can be," Payne said. "You don't need to be an avid golfer to cheer for a hole-in-one."

You can't help but admire the direction Payne is taking the Masters. He has been shaking the cobwebs off the club since taking over as chairman a year ago. He convinced Arnold Palmer to step out of retirement and step onto the first tee as an honorary starter. He jiggered the qualifications to re-establish the popular automatic qualification for most PGA Tour winners. He honored the long-standing contributions of the media by presenting achievement awards to people who have covered 40 or more Masters.

After the 2007 tournament, Payne's work didn't stop. In October, the club announced on-course changes that would provide relief to players and fans.

He moved the tee forward on the first hole, providing freedom to adjust the set-up according to weather conditions while providing more room for patrons to move behind it.

He created a hillside viewing area between the sixth and 16th holes that can accommodate 2,000 people to watch one of the most popular confluences on the golf course.

In October, Payne announced a new partnership with ESPN.

Payne promised that more new ideas are on the horizon.

"These initiatives are important first steps and a great kickoff to our ongoing mission of growing the game," he said.

We can believe him to keep his word.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.


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