For nearly a decade, William Porter Billy Payne ran the planning of the worlds most inclusive event. More than 10,000 athletes from nearly 200 countries competed in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, which took place largely through the efforts of Payne, who decided one day that his home city should host the Olympics and didnt stop until his vision became reality.
Now, Payne is just getting comfortable in the office that has presided over one of the most exclusive clubs in the world for 74 years. On the brink of his first Masters as chairman of both the tournament and the Augusta National Golf Club, it appears Payne is bringing a bit of his old job to his current post.
The new chairman has said he wants to bring more fun to the club; he takes phone calls, asks about your family and is receptive to granting interviews and posing for photo shoots'signals that Augustas iron curtain may be drawing open a bit.
During the shoot, Payne is relaxed and comfortable, setting a casual tone to a process that often can be difficult. Lets leave the coat unbottoned, he tells the photographer, Fred Vuich, as they stand on the 15th fairway. Vuich has no problems coaxing a natural smile out of Payne, who had been photographed more often than any incoming chairman'and no doubt more than all of them combined.
After a while, Payne, who took his post in May 2006, notices the grounds crew working on the green and strolls over to chat with Brad Owen, the course superintendent. Vuich continues to click away as Payne greets the staff and discusses the course with Owen. At the end of the photo shoot, Payne thanks Vuich and says, See you at the Masters, Fred.
Despite Paynes openness, nobody expects the clubhouse to be painted mauve; this is still Augusta National, after all, and Payne, speaking on the record, still espouses tradition. The only thing different about me is that, with the exception of Mr. [Clifford] Roberts, Im younger than anyone who has become chairman, he says. I grew up at a different time. But at the same time, I have great admiration and respect for those who came before me.
Even when offering such a textbook response, Payne chuckles, letting you know that he is in on the joke. He means it, sure, but he says what he knows will end up looking good in print. You know it; he knows it. And he doesnt mind sharing a laugh about it, an epic departure from the past.
Hootie Johnson was a syrupy South Carolinian who was in many ways a caricature of everything old school'even before his hard-line stance against Martha Burk and the issue of female members. Jack Stephens was a nice guy who never said much of anything. And Roberts, the original czar of Augusta, spoke in such a stilted monotone his listeners thought they were going to die of boredom or old age before he finished.
His predecessors were comfortable revealing little; the 59-year-old Payne, on the other had, is one part salesman and two parts cheerleader. He was a real estate lawyer when he formed the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, and as ACOGs president and CEO, Payne worked tirelessly in the public eye, traveling around the world to build consensus among leaders and dignitaries, ultimately convincing the International Olympic Committee to pick Atlanta over sentimental favorite Athens for the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics.
In addition to his people skills, the key to Paynes success is his work ethic. He works as long as it takes to get the job done, a lesson he learned from his father. Payne was the child of children; Porter and Mary Payne were only 17 when Billy was born. While Porter was on the University of Georgia football team, the coaching staff helped keep the Paynes above water. Head coach Wally Butts bounced young Billy on his knee as he slipped Porter a key to the athletic dining room for a little grocery shopping in the pantry. Backfield coach Bill Hartman gave the Paynes his old refrigerator so they could keep Billys milk cold.
In later years, Porter would share those stories with his son, saying, Billy, there never was a horse that couldnt be rode or a rider that couldnt be throwed. If youre not smarter than a lot of people or a better athlete than somebody, you can always outwork em.
Payne loves recounting those years, saying, I think its obvious what motivates me. For decades, he has gotten up at 4 a.m. for cardio training and weightlifting despite two heart surgeries. Im still an early riser, he says. But Id be lying if I said I worked as late as I used to.
Like his father, Payne played football at Georgia, earning All-SEC honors. I always called Billy my 60-minute player, his coach, Vince Dooley, says. Back when you didnt specialize like today, you had certain players that you wanted in the game all the time: offense, defense and special teams. That was the kind of player Billy was.
Even in college, Payne showed considerable leadership and diplomatic skills. We had a player named Jake Scott who was a challenge to manage, Dooley says. Right before I was going to suspend him, the seniors, under Billys leadership, came to me and said, Coach, we dont like Jake, and dont like what he did. But we want to win the championship, and we need him. So please give him one more chance.
No matter the issue, Payne brings an enthusiasm and energy that border on evangelical. Im a firm believer that if you embrace a dream that is founded in goodness and then you get wonderful and compassionate people to share that dream, that anything is possible, he says.
In 1997 Payne and his wife, Martha, founded the John F. Beard Award (named after Marthas father), a $25,000 annual gift to a graduating medical student from the Medical College of Georgia. He still gives impassioned speeches about the work of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, which gave him a Distinguished Service award. And he is a recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt Award, the NCAAs highest individual honor, given to a former college athlete who has set the bar for high ideals and outstanding character.
Lifes greatest rewards are reserved for those who bring joy to the lives of others, Payne says.
Early in his tenure, Payne is beginning to figure out which rewards he will bring to Augusta National and the Masters. In some ways, he is a pioneer: He is the first Georgia resident and the first chairman never to have met Roberts. (Payne became a member in 1997.) But he still considers upholding the traditions of the club to be an important part of his new role. He has yet to answer questions about female members, and has provided few glimpses into the future of the Masters.
Although speaking in general terms for the most part, Payne has begun to address specific issues. For one, he wants to bring back automatic Masters invitations for winners of PGA TOUR events the previous year, a qualifying criterion that was eliminated in 1999. At the same time, he wants to keep the starting field manageable'no more than 100 or so.
Payne, who owns a 6.8 Handicap Index, also has strong feelings about the course. I was as happy as anyone when, in this past Masters under generally good weather conditions and not withstanding the criticism we had before the tournament, we had virtually universal acclaim afterward, he says. While [the course] was extremely difficult, it was fair. Im very comfortable that last year was a good test. And Im comforted by the fact that the rate of increase in distances is slowing down. The indication to me would be that while this could rear its head again as a critical issue, it is coming to a point where our course is in a position to remain competitive unless we get surprised by some other advance. But we take nothing off the table. We will do whatever is necessary to preserve the competitive integrity of this course.
At the same time, Payne looks to the past for guidance on how to run Augusta National and the Masters.
We are not arrogant enough to think that there are not ways we can improve, and better serve our patrons and spectators, he says. Our great objective is to help spread the enjoyment of the game of golf. We believe that the more people who are attracted to the Masters, either in person, through our broadcast partners or through utilization of new media, the more they will correspondingly be attracted to the game of golf. Thats a mission we take very seriously.
How much enjoyment one man can inject into Augusta and the Masters remains to be seen, but if anyone can lighten the tone of the place, it is Billy Payne. After all, this is a man who got former IOC Chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch, who liked to be called Your Excellency, and Atlanta ex-mayor Bill Campbell, later convicted of bribery and corruption, to hold hands and do the right thing.
With that kind of diplomatic resum, theres no better candidate to run a club thats as famous and fickle as Augusta National Golf Club.