In May 2006, Billy Payne didn’t sound like a trailblazer, which should be no surprise given he’d just been named Augusta National Golf Club’s sixth chairman.
Change historically comes slowly at the home of the Masters, a place where electronic scoreboards and mobile devices are still not welcome, and the incoming chairman struck a predictably subtle tone in his first meeting with the media, despite a resume that would suggest a more forward-thinking leadership style.
“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,” he said in ’06 when asked his goals as chairman.
But Payne did offer a glimpse into a tenure that would turn out to be more cutting edge than conventional, saying he wanted, “to embrace in every respect changes which continue to make, as they have in the past, this course during the Masters prove itself to be one of the great courses of the world.”
More than a decade later, those changes have stretched far behind the club’s pristine fairways.
Augusta National announced on Wednesday that Payne will retire as club chairman on October 16 after 11 eventful years at the helm, and will be replaced by longtime competition committee chairman Fred Ridley.
Time will be the true judge of Payne’s legacy as chairman, but his body of work paints a picture of a leader who brought the club into the 21st century while honoring those traditions that make the Masters one of the game’s most revered events.
While inside the ropes, the venerable course maintains its appearance it’s what has transpired away from the manicured fairways that will define Payne’s time. (Although in that maiden news conference Payne did address expanded tee boxes at Nos. 11 and 15 and he was regularly asked about any pending alterations.)
While neither Payne nor the club went looking to become a standard-bearer to grow the game, it’s a role both embraced. In 2009, Payne created the Asia-Pacific Amateur and announced that the winner would receive an invitation to play the Masters. Now-world No. 2 Hideki Matsuyama won twice and benefited from the exemption. In 2015, that coveted perk was extended to the winner of the Latin America Amateur, another Payne brainchild.
“We do believe that the ultimate prize of a Masters invitation will inspire kids to take up this game, and through time, dramatically increase interest and participation in golf in the region,” Payne said in ’09.
Payne and the club, along with the USGA and PGA of America, also took a leadership role in 2013 with the introduction of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, a nationwide junior golf competition that culminates on the Sunday before the start of Masters week at Augusta National.
In retrospect, all of these initiatives stand as quantifiable progress in golf’s ongoing effort to grow the game, both in the United States and abroad.
For many casual golf fans, Augusta National may mark the pinnacle of the golf season but at a place that declines to comment on “membership matters” and functions in a virtual vacuum for 51 weeks a year, taking on such a public leadership role was not a universal priority.
In many ways Payne – whose leadership style was born from his time as president and CEO of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic committee – was both a consensus builder and an autocrat, a leader who understood the challenges the game faced and Augusta National’s unique position as a conduit for change. That he was willing to use that influence was, quite simply, an act of leadership.
Following years of criticism, Payne also oversaw the addition of the club’s first female members in 2012 when former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore were invited to join.
“This is a joyous occasion,” Payne said at the time.
During Payne’s tenure, the club completed the purchase of a massive parcel of land on the other side of Berckmans Road, rerouted that thoroughfare and built a state-of-the-art entertainment complex called Berckmans Place.
At this year’s Masters, the club unveiled a sprawling new media center and recently completed a purchase of a parcel of land from Augusta Country Club adjacent the 13th tee. All of these changes have since been applauded and the subtle modernization continues.
The only true measure of any leader is how the organization, be it a business or the game’s most high-profile club, has evolved and grown while they were in charge.
In the case of Payne, Augusta National is better, the Masters is better, but most importantly the game is better.