The new chairman of Augusta National brings an old set of ideals
to the home of the Masters.
Billy Payne, the first chairman born in Georgia and the first
with no tangible link to club founders Bobby Jones and Clifford
Roberts, said Monday his goal was to preserve the traditions of
Augusta National and that he had no time for Martha Burk.
"Our membership matters are all decided by club members, and we have no specific timetable to address that issue."
Billy Payne, Augusta National Golf Club
"I'm very much aware of her position on all issues as they
relate to Augusta National, and I don't really see at this time
that any dialogue would be meaningful or helpful,'' Payne said in a
conference call, his first comments since he was selected Friday to
replace Hootie Johnson as chairman of perhaps the most powerful
club in golf.
Burk led a spirited but unsuccessful campaign for Augusta
National to invite women to join, and the former head of the
National Council of Women's Organizations held out hope that
Johnson's retirement might change the club's position.
But when Payne was asked whether females were in the club's
future, the answer came out of the past.
"As we've said, and as you've heard many times in the past on
membership matters, all of them will be decided by our members, and
we have no specific timetable to address that issue,'' Payne said.
Burk's lawyer, Cyrus Mehri, sent a letter to Payne on her behalf
asking for a meeting. Burk said she was disappointed -- but not
surprised -- to hear that Payne wasn't interested. Augusta National
members closed rank behind Johnson over the all-male membership,
even as television sponsors were cut loose for two years at the
Burk said it sounded as though Payne was "channeling Hootie.''
"I thought it would be an opportunity for the club to move
forward, and it does not sound like that's the case,'' Burk said in
a telephone interview. "He's had several years to speak out as a
member and clearly did not have the courage to do so. As the chair,
I thought his backbone might be a little stiffer.''
Payne becomes the sixth chairman in the 73-year-history of the
club effective May 21, when the course is shut down for the summer.
Unlike Johnson, who was a member for 30 years before becoming
chairman, Payne only joined Augusta National nine years ago and was
the media chairman during the Masters since 2000.
Johnson, who keeps a framed photo of himself with Roberts on a
corner table in his office overlooking the course, attended his
first Masters in 1935. Payne is the first chairman who never met
either of the founders; Roberts and Jones had died long before
Payne became a member.
"I have read extensively about their lives and I know a lot
about their work at Augusta National,'' Payne said. "And I think
these writings have proven and will continue to prove invaluable
lessons for me.''
"He's had several years to speak out as a member and clearly did not have the courage to do so. As the chair, I thought his backbone might be a little stiffer."
Johnson will be chairman emeritus, and Payne said he would
continue to lean on him for advice. But he denied having to be on
the same page as his predecessor before taking the job.
"My employment was not conditioned on how I responded to any
questions,'' Payne said.
As for the golf course, the only changes for the 2007 Masters is
that it might play shorter -- but not by much.
Payne said the tee boxes on Nos. 11 and 15 are the shortest at
Augusta National, and they would be expanded 5 to 7 yards so they
are the same size as the others -- about 20 yards. That would allow
officials to move the tees all the way forward if needed.
"These changes ... will provide us with more flexibility if the
holes are playing into a substantial headwind, or if the fairway
conditions are soft,'' Payne said.
He also said grass under the stand of pine trees right of the
11th fairway would be replaced by pine straw, consistent with the
rest of the course; and that the fairway would be 3 to 5 yards
wider on the right to give medium-length hitters a wider landing
area from 280 yards to 300 yards off the tee.
Augusta National was lengthened nearly 500 yards during
Johnson's eight years as chairman, but Payne suggested it would be
a while before any more holes were drastically changed. He said the
minor alterations to the 11th and 15th already were in the works.
"I think we just have it just about right,'' Payne said.
And just like Johnson, he did not rule out the possibility that
the Masters could one day require a tournament golf ball if the
club felt distance was getting out of control. Payne said he was
encouraged by the dialogue among golf's governing bodies and the
PGA Tour on limiting advances in equipment and ball technology.
"While we would hope that resolution would come as quickly as
possible through that normal process of the governing bodies, we
would not take that option off the table in the context of what
lengths to which we would go to protect our own course in the
future,'' he said.
The 58-year-old Payne is best known for helping Atlanta get the
1996 Olympics with his zeal and salesmanship. Despite an
all-consuming job of running the biggest spectacle in sports, Payne
said being chairman of Augusta National and the Masters might be
"the most fortunate opportunity of my lifetime.''
"I think I begin my tenure with the course and the club in
pretty good shape,'' he said.