Johnson to step aside after eight years
ATLANTA -- Billy Payne, who ran the Atlanta Olympics a decade ago, is replacing Hootie Johnson as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters.
The 75-year-old Johnson had served in the role since 1998, most prominently turning back demands that women be allowed to join the club.
Johnson also ordered two major overhauls of the course, adding 460 yards -- making it the second-longest test in major championship history -- to counter rapidly improving equipment and longer-hitting players.
A South Carolina native and member of the club since 1968, Johnson moved up to become the club's fifth chairman after Jack Stephens stepped down.
Johnson will relinquish his title on May 21 and move into the role of chairman emeritus.
"I have enjoyed my time serving as chairman," he said in a statement. "Working with club members, staff and volunteers on the Masters has been very rewarding. The tournament is successful by any measure and will continue to grow. I know I leave the championship in very capable hands."
The 58-year-old Payne has headed The Masters media committee since 2000.
"It's an honor to be the new chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and The Masters tournament," he said in the statement. "Our club has outstanding membership, dedicated staff and volunteers committed to The Masters, and loyal and knowledgeable patrons. Hootie did a wonderful job as chairman, and I will endeavor to maintain the customs and traditions of our club as established by Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones."
Payne was not immediately available for further comment. The club said he would discuss his new position on Monday.
Davis Love III, who was playing at the Wachovia Championship in Charlotte, N.C., praised Johnson for his handling of a difficult job.
"It's a lot of pressure, a lot going on around you, a lot of second-guessing," Love said. "It's kind of like being president. No matter what you do, half the people are going to think you did it wrong."
The leadership at Augusta National has gotten decidedly younger in the past two weeks.
Will Nicholson, 77, retired as chairman of the competition and rules committee and was replaced by 53-year-old Fred Ridley, former president of the U.S. Golf Association. Nicholson had been in charge of setting up the golf course since 1990.
Martha Burk, who led the fight to open the club's all-male membership to women in 2003, ran up against stiff opposition from Johnson and drew nearly as many counter protesters as supporters when she staged a rally near the club during The Masters.
Still, she was hopeful of discussing the issue again with Augusta National's new chairman.
"I hope that Billy Payne will exercise stronger leadership and better judgment than Hootie Johnson has," said Burk, who is the former chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations. "He has a unique opportunity to show some leadership."
Johnson defied the critics and surprised his friends and supporters when he took a high-profile stand against female membership. After receiving a letter from Burk in 2002, he angrily replied that Augusta National would not be forced to act "at the point of a bayonet."
Johnson said it was prerogative of any private club to decide who could become members, even though Augusta National quietly admitted blacks after being linked to the debate over all-white clubs in the early 1990s.
"You know, some of the media tries to portray us -- or this woman portrays us -- as being discriminatory, and being bigots. And we're not," Johnson said in response to Burk's demands. "We're a private club. We will prevail because we're right."
He even cut loose The Masters' television sponsors -- undoubtedly costing the club millions of dollars -- because he didn't want the companies to be targeted by Burk's group.
After two years of commercial-free broadcasts, Johnson brought back the sponsors for the 2005 Masters.
Many of Johnson's friends and colleagues were surprised that he was so open about his battle with Burk. They described him as a backroom operator, a genteel banker who would prefer to solve problems quietly, without a fuss.
During the civil rights movement, Johnson remained largely under the radar while chipping away at discrimination in South Carolina. He helped get blacks elected to the state legislature, promoted blacks in the corporate boardroom and ran a committee to desegregate the state's colleges.
While Johnson refused to change the look of Augusta National's membership, he had no qualms about giving the golf course a major overhaul.
He ordered up the biggest changes in club history before the 2002 Masters, adding some 300 yards in length. He was at it again before this year's tournament, stretching the layout to 7,445 yards -- trailing only the 7,514-yard PGA Championship at Whistling Straits as the longest in major championship history.
"We have never been worried about scores," Johnson insisted. "Our greatest concern has always been that the course be kept current with the times. Change has been a constant at Augusta National, starting in the earliest years of the tournament. Bobby Jones made innumerable modifications to the layout, and that philosophy continues to this day."
Payne was born in Athens, raised in Atlanta and played football at the University of Georgia, where he earned All-Southeastern Conference honors as a senior in 1968. He came to international prominence when he led Atlanta's long-shot bid to land the 1996 Centennial Olympics.
The privately funded Atlanta Games were plagued by transportation problems and charges of rampant commercialization, though Payne pointed to huge crowds, impressive venues and the post-Olympics impact on development in downtown Atlanta as the more lasting legacies.
A largely forgotten issue leading up to the '96 Olympics was Payne's attempt to add golf to the program. He even arranged to hold the event at Augusta National, which was willing to reopen the course -- it normally closes during the blistering summer months -- and set up tees for both men and women.
The proposal failed amid protests about Augusta National having an all-white, all-male membership for most of its history.
"I'm thrilled for Billy because one of the failures of the Olympics, I think, was the failure to include golf," said civil rights pioneer and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, who worked closely with Payne to land the Olympics. "I'm not a golfer. You couldn't get me to chase around that little white ball for any amount of money. But I appreciate the sport and I appreciate the value of the sport around the world. It should have been in the Olympics."
Payne is a partner in Gleacher Partners, a New York-based investment banking firm with offices in Atlanta. He also is chairman of Centennial Investment Properties, with his son as a partner.
Burk said she knew little about Payne, other than his role in the Atlanta Olympics.
"To my knowledge, he never spoke out during the controversy," she said. "But I hope Billy Payne has not had to engage in a prior agreement to continue to bar women in order to ascend to the chairmanship.
Young preferred to work behind the scenes to get Augusta National to open its membership to women. He believes that Johnson might have been amenable if not for Burk's public campaign against the men's-only club.
"Mr. Johnson was very much an old-school Southerner. He was ready to grow, he was ready to change, but he wasn't going to be pushed," Young said. "The Masters is the premier tournament in the sport largely because of Mr. Johnson. Let's give him credit for all the good he did, and not try to blame him because he wasn't able to see into the 21st century.
"That's up to Billy to do."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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