Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Chairman Billy Payne, Augusta Natl. GC

Since Billy Payne's first press conference as incoming chairman of Augusta National on Monday, talking heads and typing heads have been fouling the airwaves, internet and papers with speculation.

Will Payne, 58, an Atlantan who was CEO of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, be a new-blood progressive or the same-old, same-old?

Judging from what I've seen of Payne at the Masters in recent years, I'd be very, very surprised if he came out with his guns blazing for change. He's too smart and too respectful of his Augusta National elders and the traditions of the club to step to the podium and declare himself an agent of change. But I'll be even more surprised if Payne doesn't prove to be a steady hand on the club's tillar yet also a bit of a modernist.

For the past two or three years, one thing I have noticed at the Masters is an increasing number of younger members strutting around in their green jackets -- fewer guys in their 70s and more in their 40s.

Guys like that are products of a different time, with different sensibilities, and they don't need embarrassing questions back in their boardrooms in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and other big cities.

The more I think about it, the more I believe Hootie Johnson, who is a good man but from another generation, realizes all this. At the risk of reading too much into his thinking and his choice of his successor, is it possible Johnson sees in Payne a leader who has the self-confidence and political savvy to ease the Augusta National forward.

Here are a few excerpts from his introductory press conference via conference call:

On changes to golf course for 2007...

There will be some changes to the course for the 2007 Masters that Mr. Johnson has already initiated, but certainly, I think you'll agree, not as significant as in the past. They will include adding five to seven yards in front of the tees on hole Nos. 11 and 15. The length of the tees on our other par 4s and 5s average about 20 yards. On those two holes, it's only about 13 yards. So these changes will make these tees consistent with the other tees on our course, and will provide us with more flexibility if the holes are playing into a substantial head wind or if the fairway conditions are soft.
Also, we will be adjusting the mow line at hole No. 11 about three to five yards on the golfer's right. This, we believe, will provide the medium-length player a wider fairway, especially at the 280- to 300-yard mark.
Also, on the 11th hole, and on the right, we will be removing the grass from under the pine trees and replacing it with pine straw. This, too, is consistent with other parts of our course.

On the prospect of women members...

Q. I wanted to ask you, one issue that has arisen during Hootie's tenure was the lack of female members. Can you see that changing?
BILLY PAYNE: Doug, I think I would answer that by saying as we've said and as you've heard many times in the past, on membership matters, all of them will be decided by our members, and we have no specific timetable to address that issue.

On his goals as chairman...

Q. And just as a quick follow up to that, and a simple one, Billy, what do you see as your goal as Chairman?
BILLY PAYNE: Well, I've been thinking a lot about that obviously over the last several days, Doug, and I think first and foremost, to preserve the great traditions of this golf course, those traditions which make it so special, those elements of this Club and this Tournament which make it one of most popular sporting venues in the world, and to embrace in every respect changes which continue to make, as they have in the past, this course during the Masters Tournament prove itself to be one of the great courses of the world. I think I begin my tenure with the course and the Club in pretty good shape.

On Martha Burk...

Q. I was curious, some of us as you well know by now spoke with Martha Burk the day this was announced, and she said she would call you and wanted to congratulate you and also wanted to sort of open up a dialogue on the 600-pound gorilla that's still in the room. I'm wondering, would you welcome having any kind of dialogue with her, and is that something that you see as being possible to occur?
BILLY PAYNE: Len, I think I'm very much aware of her position on all issues as they relate to Augusta National, and I don't really see at this time that any dialogue would be meaningful or helpful.
Q. So if she called, you wouldn't take her call?
BILLY PAYNE: I don't think any dialogue would be meaningful or helpful.

On adding PGA Tour winners to the field of the Masters...

Q. Mr. Johnson mentioned the possibility in the future of adding PGA TOUR winners back to the exemption ranks. Are there any other changes that you're going to be looking at right away?
BILLY PAYNE: You're accurate. We're looking at the issue of adding back PGA TOUR winners. We're studying the issue. We don't expect to do that by 2007. In fact, it would actually be unfair to do so because there are golfers out there playing right now under the existing qualification standards.
So while you won't see it next year, I think it's a probability that you will see it sometime soon in the future.

On his challenge as chairman...

Q. Just wondered, you've only had a few days to think about it, but what do you regard as your greatest immediate challenge?
BILLY PAYNE: I think I have -- I think it's safe to say that I will need to watch, to observe, I will need to learn a lot, get familiar with significantly greater detail about the operation of the Club and the Tournament than I now possess, and I've always felt that the best learning experience initially is certainly to listen and not talk. So that's what I plan to do in the coming months.

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