2006: Hootie passes the torch

Although he won’t officially take over the reins at Augusta National Golf Club until May 21, one of Billy Payne’s first acts as chairman-elect was to spend 45 minutes talking with the nation’s golf media.

Last week, Payne was tabbed to be William (Hootie) Johnson’s successor as Augusta National chairman and his May 8 telephone roundtable with the media was a high-profile example of how the fiercely private club may become more forthright.

Payne gave a heads-up on specific course changes for next year’s Masters and he even offered a rare, albeit limited, glimpse into the chairman’s selection process.

Some things, however, don’t change. When asked if he would consider a meeting with women’s activist Martha Burk, who in 2002 led a campaign to persuade the club to admit its first female member, Payne recited a familiar reply.

“Our membership matters are all decided by club members, and we have no specific timetable to address that issue,” Payne said.

Payne – who will become the sixth chairman in the club’s 73-year history and the first Georgia native to hold the post – joined Augusta National in 1997 and was named chairman of the media committee in 2000, a sign he was on the fast track to a top leadership position. Payne said Johnson approached him “recently” to gauge his interest in the chairmanship, and when he answered in the affirmative Payne quickly was approved by a succession committee.

At 58, Payne, who is best known for bringing the Centennial Olympics to Atlanta in 1996, is the club’s first chairman who doesn’t have a direct link to co-founders Clifford Roberts and Bob Jones. Roberts was the club’s chairman for 42 years before stepping down in 1976.

“I missed not knowing them, but it is only logical and a circumstance of the passage of time that we would have a chairman that didn’t have a close relationship with either of them,” said Payne, a former University of Georgia football standout who is a partner with an investment banking firm, Gleacher Partners.

Payne’s zeal and salesmanship are the key reasons Atlanta was chosen as the site of the 1996 Summer Games. For example, Payne famously told the International Olympic Committee that the average July temperature in Atlanta was a moderate 75 degrees, admitting later, “I didn’t say what time of day.”

“Billy is nothing if not enthusiastic,” said Dick Pound, a Canadian IOC member who worked closely with Payne leading to the Atlanta Games. “Southern charm sort of beat out the technical stuff.”

Johnson, 75, ends a sometimes tumultuous run as chairman. During his eight-year tenure, he oversaw two course expansions totaling more than 460 yards – bringing Augusta National’s total length to 7,445 yards, the second-longest in major championship history.

“Our greatest concern has always been that the course be kept current with the times,” said Johnson, who has been a member at Augusta National since 1968.

Yet Johnson’s most enduring legacy likely will be his public stand in defense of the club’s all-male membership. In response to a letter from Burk, Johnson replied that Augusta National would not be forced to act “at the point of a bayonet.”

Burk, who led the campaign for female members at the home of the Masters when she was head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, had hoped to open a dialogue with Payne when he took over. She said she sent him a letter over the weekend asking for a meeting. But Payne left little room for a conference.

“I think I’m aware of her positions on all issues as they relate to Augusta,” Payne said. “I don’t see that any dialogue would be meaningful or helpful.”

Burk said Payne’s response was predictable and added that it sounded as though Payne was “channeling Hootie.”

“I thought it would be an opportunity for the club to move forward, and it does not sound like that’s the case,” Burk said. “He’s had several years to speak out as a member and clearly did not have the courage to do so. As the chair, I thought his backbone might be a little stiffer.”

Although Payne’s stand on female members had a familiar ring to it, he was not as guarded about other club issues. He gave details about tweaks to the tee boxes at holes 11 and 15: each will be enlarged 5 to 7 yards – consistent with the 20-yard length of the other tees – so that yardage can be adjusted depending on conditions. He also discussed other changes to No. 11: Five yards of width added to the fairway at 280 yards and replacing grass with pine straw under the new trees along the right side.

Payne said he’d continue to press Arnold Palmer to become an honorary starter at the Masters and said the club may reestablish an exemption for winners of PGA Tour events in the year leading up to each tournament.

Payne also said Johnson – who will become chairman emeritus after he steps down – will remain active in club issues.

“I’ve received a lot of advice from (Johnson) and I’d hope he will continue to do what he does best and that is being my friend and my adviser,” Payne said. “I always felt the best learning experience is to listen and not talk.”

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