Golf, at its very core, is more about the players than the people who are in charge of the game. But some overseers are bigger than others, and Billy Payne is one of those.
Payne has resigned as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters, the club announced Wednesday. His resignation, after 11 years on the job, will be effective Oct. 16, shortly after the club reopens for the fall and three days after his 70th birthday.
He ran the club and the championship with what some say was a firm hand, making certain that members and competitors were well aware of and maintained the club’s longstanding traditions.
But he was much more than a caretaker. He was an innovator, and a courageous one, at that. No one looked more pleased than he was that day in 2012 when the club extended memberships to Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, the first two women to be members in the history of Augusta National.
He had endured the slings and arrows hurled at him by the media for not admitting women on a timetable that was being dictated by others. He patiently answered questions and graciously stepped out of the way of media coverage that was unflattering to Augusta National and was particularly critical of him.
But it can be said with some certainty that because Augusta National broke down its barrier to female members, the move led the way for the Royal & Ancient’s vote to admit women as members in 2014. And, as a result, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers – whose members call Muirfield Golf Club home – finally, after two votes by the membership, agreed in March to allow women to become members.
Payne was at the helm when Augusta National and the R&A created the Asia-Pacific Amateur in 2009 and six years later, the Latin America Amateur. Today, the winners of both events are extended invitations to compete in the Masters.
Both amateur tournaments were created, in Payne’s view, to grow the global game and to bring more international players to the Masters. As a result, Hideki Matsuyama – who won the Asia-Pacific Amateur twice – got his first taste of big-time tournament golf at Augusta National. He is now ranked No. 2 in the world.
Payne also helped create Drive, Chip and Putt, a competition for youngsters ages 7-15, and opened Augusta National to the finalists to compete on the Sunday before the Masters. It is an event not only watched by millions of television viewers but is cheerfully attended by a number of Masters competitors.
Financially, he negotiated a new television contract with ESPN to broadcast the first two rounds of the Masters and, for the first time, to televise the Par-3 Contest, which has been a fixture at Augusta National for years.
And he brought back invitations to winners of PGA Tour events during the 12 months before that year’s Masters.
“The privilege I experienced serving as chairman of Augusta National and the Masters was far greater than I could have ever imagined,” Payne said in a news release. “Just as nothing can prepare you for the unique responsibilities and important decisions that come with this position, it is equally impossible to anticipate the many joys and, most importantly, the wonderful friendships that are the ultimate reward of service.
“This honor, however, is too great for one person to claim as their own for too long a period of time. I retire knowing it is simply the right thing to do – and at the right moment – to open the door and invite someone new to be called upon to lead, bring forth new ideas and craft a new vision that will honor our founders and serve the game of golf for many years to come.”
Payne will be succeeded by Fred Ridley, who has been serving as the chairman of the Masters competition committee. Ridley is a former USGA president and will be the seventh Augusta National chairman, following Clifford Roberts (1933-77), Bill Lane (1977-80), Hord Hardin (1980-91), Jack Stephens (1991-98), Hootie Johnson (1998-2006) and Payne.
Ridley, 65, is an attorney and will be the first chairman to have played in the Masters. The 1975 U.S. Amateur champion played in the 1976, ’77 and ’78 Masters.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf