Payne welcomes PGA Tour winners back to Masters

Updated: April 5, 2007, 2:01 AM ET
Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- With Billy Payne in charge, winners of PGA Tour events will once again receive their automatic invitations to the Masters.

As for women at Augusta National? Well, it's going to take more than new management to change that policy.

Payne, who joined Augusta about the time he was bringing the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta, became chairman last May and announced his first major change in his State of the Masters news conference Wednesday.

Winners of most PGA Tour events will again qualify for the Masters, an exemption that was taken away after 1999.

That's one year too late for Chris Couch, Jeff Maggert and John Senden, three winners in 2006 who didn't make it under the current criteria.

Under the new rules, winners of events opposite the majors and World Golf Championships and of tournaments on the new fall schedule will not get automatic invitations.

"Our goal is to have the strongest field possible," Payne said, "and these qualifications accomplish that."

If that made the players happy, women found no such satisfaction in Payne's policies.

Would he soften the stance of predecessor Hootie Johnson and allow women to become members? Payne knew the question was comng, and he dodged it.

"As I've said many times," he said, "all members and membership are subject to the private deliberations of the members, and other than that, sir, I'm simply not going to talk about it," Payne said.

Augusta is four years removed from protests led by Martha Burk, who demanded the club admit women as members or risk a boycott of CBS and other Masters supporters. That effort failed, though, and brought no change.

On that and other issues, Payne stuck close to the party line at golf's most exclusive country club.

"We don't have a suggestion box," he said.

But there had to be a reason a man like Payne was chosen to lead the club that has long walked the line between treasuring its privacy and running the most popular golf tournament in the world. It might have been because Augusta wanted someone with PR savvy, someone who could come up with new ideas to expand the reach of the Masters -- only do it without the lampoon-like excesses that marred the Atlanta Olympics.

The Masters has always used the less-is-more strategy. It long excluded front-nine coverage from the telecasts and still offers fewer hours of coverage than the other majors.

But the tournament is adding an hour of online coverage, which will begin before the telecasts this year. It is also supplementing the streaming video from Amen Corner that was introduced to its Web site last year with video from the driving range and post-round news conferences.

"We hope Augusta National and its beauty and its competitiveness will draw people to the wonderful game of golf," Payne said. "And to the extent new technology, the new media, can help us deliver that message, I would take advantage of it. But so would anybody at this point in time."

Payne will have no talk about the legacy he might create. His predecessor, Johnson, earned a reputation for holding the line when Burk caused trouble, but also for being unafraid to make the drastic changes necessary to keep Augusta relevant in an era of rapidly improving equipment and, of course, Tiger Woods.

Payne said it's useless to lump him in with past chairmen at Augusta, a list that includes only six names.

"There are two personalities that will always define Augusta National: Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts," Payne said. "All the rest of us just came and went, and I'm going to fall into that latter category."

Not exactly, if only because he is so closely linked to the games that are widely regarded as the most garish Olympics in modern history.

Payne tried to get golf on the Olympic program and bring it to Augusta. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful, but members grew to like Payne so much during the process that they invited him to join their club.

Today, Payne said, Augusta would not welcome the Olympics.

In fact, not much at Augusta reminds him of that endeavor anymore. Leading this membership, he said, has little in common with the effort he spearheaded more than a decade ago.

"We started from the embryonic idea and built a team" for Atlanta, Payne said, "whereas there's a great team already in place here."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press