New Augusta Chairman Studies Old Traditions

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- For the last eight years, a corner coffee table in the chairman's office at Augusta National held a framed photograph that illustrated the powerful heritage at the home of the Masters.
 
It showed a stone-faced Clifford Roberts standing next to a smiling Hootie Johnson, both in their green jackets, the chairman in memoriam and the chairman emeritus, No. 1 and No. 5 in the 74-year lineage of the club.
 
The sixth chairman is Billy Payne, who is two months away from presiding over his first Masters.
 
On the corner coffee table is a picture of his grandchildren.
 
Payne is the first Masters chairman who never met Roberts, the man who ruled the club and its tournament with an iron fist, and who many believe still rules in spirit. He died in 1977, some 10 years before Payne first played the course as a guest of Charlie Yates -- a former British Amateur champion who learned golf from Bobby Jones and played in the first Masters.
 
But those who think this 'new era in golf' also extends to the Masters might want to heed that time-tested axiom at Augusta.
 
Slow down.
 
'Let me make it clear,' Payne said, leaning forward in his chair. 'History will never forget Cliff Roberts and his contributions to this club and this tournament. He will always be the chairman. I will be nothing more than someone who appeared on the list. Maybe there will be an asterisk by it that said, 'First Georgia resident.'
 
'But other than that,' he added, 'there's so much preservation of custom and tradition that's such an important part of the job. Just to be among the list of men whose lives have been so dedicated to this place, that's enough.'
 
OK, so don't hold your breath on that first woman in a green jacket.
 
When he accepted the job eight months ago, Payne didn't see any reason to open a dialogue with Martha Burk, and that hasn't changed. Members will deliberate and decide all issues related to membership, and the club doesn't discuss membership.
 
'And I don't have anything to add to that,' he said.
 
Payne is hardly a puppet. He combines hard work with big dreams. Proof of that comes from a vision he had leaving church in 1987 that grew into reality when Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympics.
 
There will be changes at Augusta. They will not be made overnight.
 
'We are not compelled ever to move too quickly,' he said.
 
Payne, however, has shown to be a quick study. The club has enormous archives of its history, and the chairman rarely goes to sleep without delving into Roberts' files. He has tried to learn what made Roberts tick, how he communicated and how people responded. He was amazed at the attention Roberts paid to even the most minor detail, such as knowing the exact metallic weight of trophies.
 
'I would have liked him,' Payne said. 'I'm sorry I didn't have the opportunity to know him.'
 
No doubt he stumbled across Roberts' desire to keep the Masters the most exclusive major championship, which is guiding Payne as he prepares for his first significant change.
 
The other majors have 156-man fields. The Masters had only 92 players tee off last April, typical of a tournament that never has had more than 109 players in its field.
 
'The player field being small, many tournament formalities and regulations are eliminated,' Roberts once wrote. 'The first consideration is to provide a first-class golf course in as beautiful and nearly perfect condition as effort can make it; and secondly, to show our player-guests every possible courtesy.'
 
Payne wants to restore starting in 2008 the eligibility criteria that PGA TOUR winners receive an automatic invitation to the Masters. Johnson did away with the category after the '99 Masters when the tour began scheduling events -- usually with weak fields -- the same week as the World Golf Championships and the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup.
 
But bringing back the 'win-and-you're in' category is not that simple.
 
Should the Masters recognize winners from opposite-field events in Mexico, Milwaukee and Reno, not to mention the seven events after the FedExCup? And does it continue to take the top 40 on the PGA TOUR money list or the top 30 in the FedExCup? Or both?
 
'There's a lot of arithmetic in this,' Payne said. 'What you don't want is all of a sudden to have 100 playing participants, and we have arguably eroded the quality of the tournament. Notwithstanding folks' opinion of how the best way to get there is, we're going to do the best we can.'
 
His goal is to keep the field around 90 players, and 'anything that puts that number at significant threat has got an uphill battle.'
 
The other change will be in new media coverage of the Masters. There was streaming video of Amen Corner on the Masters' Web site last year, and Payne said that likely will be expanded.
 
'I think you'll see more toes in the water, testing our theories,' he said. Payne didn't elaborate -- another trait of chairmen at the Masters -- although he is not convinced Web-based video competes with a network telecast.
 
He does believe his mandate is to bring the Masters to a larger audience, just as Roberts made sure the tournament had radio coverage when it began in 1934, television coverage in 1956 and then catered to the international press to expand its worldwide coverage.
 
'We treasure our reputation in the media world of being, in many cases, the first to do things, and consistently, the best,' he said. 'That same philosophical approach will dictate through time how we utilize these new media opportunities.'
 
Any changes will reflect a new generation at the Masters, even if old traditions die hard.
 
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