NOW that the remarkable run is over, there is no doubt. Billy Payne was special. The breadth of his accomplishments over 11 highly compressed years as chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament had been noticed but taken for granted, like an exceptional athlete steadily adding to his lifetime numbers. But since Payne surprised many in August by
announcing his retirement, two months before his 70th birthday, and naming his handpicked successor, Fred Ridley, it has been fully processed. Even the highlights presented in barebones terms make up quite a litany:
- Admitting the first female members in the club’s history, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore in 2012, followed by Ginni Rometty in 2014.
- In 2013, establishing the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, open to boys and girls 7 to 15.
- Giving winners of the Asia-Pacific and Latin America amateur championships invitations to the Masters.
- Persuading Arnold Palmer, then Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, to become honorary starters.
- Restoring the tradition of US PGA Tour winners from the preceding 12 months earning berths in the Masters field.
- Vastly expanding free patron parking after the purchase of neighbourhood homes.
- Opening an 18-acre practice facility.
- Creating Berckmans Place, a high-end hospitality venue.
- Opening an expansive media building.
- Buying land from the adjacent Augusta Country Club bordering the 12th and 13th holes that provides an option to lengthen the par-5 13th and perhaps enhance spectator viewing.
The sheer volume, along with Payne’s willingness to be a leader on golf’s issues beyond the club and the tournament, underscore his most significant accomplishment: radically raising the perception of Augusta’s influence and power. From a position somewhere in the middle among golf’s four Major championships and its governing bodies, Augusta now can be considered No.1 for effectiveness in both categories. Payne pushed a traditionally hidebound culture into the 21st century with a vitality that, in retrospect, is stunning. And by extension, he made the chairmanship arguably the most powerful platform in the game. In sum, there is no question that Payne’s place in history will be as the most significant chairman since the original, Clifford Roberts, whose 42-year reign ended with his death in 1977.
To do so, Payne, who was the first chairman never to have known Roberts personally, studied the words and work of the founder and gleaned a mantra of constant innovation.
Such a take might seem counterintuitive to the baggage that has been attached to the club and the tournament – its location in the Deep South, where the players were white and the caddies black, and its lack of an African-American competitor until 1975, or women members, not to mention rules like prohibiting mobile phones and restricting Masters competitors to only one ball off the tee and in fairways during practice rounds.
But as the late Peter Dobereiner defined the club’s simple credo: “Everything about Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters had to be the best, and if it was not the best, then it would have to be improved every year until it was.” Roberts, a remote man of many ideas but few words, would acknowledge compliments about the tournament thusly: “Thank you, but we never really get it right.”
The pace of change by the chairman slowed down in the four decades after Roberts, with Hootie Johnson’s lengthening of the golf course by far the most dramatic. But through a combination of temperament, a perspective gained by his mission to successfully bring the 1996 Summer Olympics to Atlanta, and the demand of the times, Payne did big things at a faster pace than even Roberts.
“Billy is unique in being equally great at the 50,000-foot view and the one through the microscope, and then he’ll outwork you,” says a longtime Augusta National member. “For him, no dream is too big and no detail is too small.”
In an interview in his office at the club on the occasion of his retirement, Payne leaned back in an upholstered chair under President Eisenhower’s oil painting of the 16th hole and described the way he’s wired. “What I do is, I do my very best at everything that I attempt to do,” Payne said. “Sometimes it might not be good enough. Sometimes it might be misdirected. Nevertheless, I’m never going to be in the place where lack of effort was the contributing factor in failure. I’m just not gonna put myself there.”
Perhaps Payne began to feel the toll of that effort, although the man who underwent a triple bypass at 34 and another in 1993, emphasised that his decision was not based on any health issues. For several years he has followed an exercise regimen of daily 90-minute workouts, keeping his 6-foot-2 frame at just under 90 kilograms.
Payne said he used another standard to pick his exit moment. “Before I became chairman, Hootie Johnson told me, ‘Billy, your biggest decision is going to be who succeeds you.’ Relatively recently, I decided Fred Ridley is the right guy. My principal job is to put in place a chairman that is going to be better than me. And now I have identified the person I believe can take it to the next level. That therefore signals to me that it’s time to leave.”
Though hesitant to agree with those who consider him the club’s most progressive chairman, Payne is comfortable calling himself “the most collaborative”. Although Augusta for years made its decisions in a silo, many of Payne’s achievements have been built on forging working alliances, notably with the R&A, USGA, US PGA Tour, PGA of America and LPGA Tour. “I’m pretty good at math,” he says of initiatives. “I know if you add five together, it’s a lot more powerful than just doing it alone.”
Payne was similarly collaborative with his membership, which he describes as “a wealth of talent that may be unparalleled in any organisation in the world. Motivating those who otherwise have very important positions, to come and embrace Augusta National and its culture, and make the time commitment … it’s a challenge,” he says. “And yet because there are so many of them, and because they themselves embrace and love Augusta National, they are more than willing to make the sacrifices required. And that gives us, I believe, the edge in the way we present our sporting event.”
Though Payne concedes that “over-control … that’s kind of a permissible description of the chairman of Augusta historically”, longtime members say that under Payne, Augusta was run more democratically than it had been or looked to the outside world. They describe a man for whom being dictatorial was inwardly uncomfortable, and that his naturally gregarious personality was a key reason that camaraderie at the club – with, he promises, more women to come – markedly improved under his leadership. Whatever his similarities with Roberts, Payne’s comfort with human interaction and the consensus-building it led to gave his chairmanship its extra dimension.
Ridley: “I like to be around golfers”
The far-more-reserved Ridley will forge a different path. The 65-year-old Floridian made his mark in the game with a classic underdog victory at the 1975 US Amateur, after which he was twice a Walker Cup captain, rose to the presidency of the USGA, and went on to lead the Masters competition committee, which oversees course setup and rules issues, for the past 11 years. In the spirit of founder Bobby Jones, Ridley is the last US Amateur champion never to turn pro. “Golf really brings out the best in people,” he told The Ledger of Lakeland, Florida, in 2004. “I like to be around golfers.”
Ridley’s first major public comments as chairman will likely take place at next year’s Masters, following Payne’s pattern after he succeeded Johnson.
A good junior golfer growing up in Winter Haven, Florida, Ridley attended the University of Florida on a golf scholarship, but he had a hard time getting into matches on a powerhouse team that won the 1973 national championship. He went on to earn his law degree at Stetson University and has specialised in real-estate law.
I’m never going to be in the place where
lack of effort was the contributing factor in failure.
I’m just not gonna put myself there — Billy Payne
“Fred is measured, the way you’d expect from a lawyer,” says Billy Andrade, a member of the 1987 Walker Cup team that Ridley captained. “At the same time, he has a nice way with people. On our Walker Cup team, I was young and nervous, but the way he quietly showed confidence in me lifted my confidence.”
At the ’75 US Amateur, played at the Country Club of Virginia in Richmond, Ridley, a second-year law student, maximised the best golf of his life. On his way to the matchplay title, he defeated the far-more heralded players and future US Tour winners Curtis Strange, Andy Bean (a teammate at Florida) and, in the final, Keith Fergus. The key was Ridley’s work with Jack Nicklaus’ lifetime teacher, Jack Grout.
“Fred was a good player in college, but not a solid player. We used to fight it out for the seventh and eighth spot on the team,” says golf architect Steve Smyers, who roomed with Ridley during the early stages of the Amateur. “We played all three practice rounds together. He was following what Grout was telling him, and you could just see him hitting these great golf shots, and his game had improved dramatically. Grout had been training him to hit it hard, telling him to take a bucket of balls on the range and hit driver as hard as he could while still holding his finish position in balance. Everything was sequencing up right, and he was hitting this low draw that went forever, and straight. It was a magical week.”
“Fred was a nice player who did good,” says Strange, who was beaten by Ridley, 2&1, in the sixth round before defeating him in the final of the 1976 North and South Amateur Championship. “He took his golf seriously,” Strange says, “just as he’s taken his career seriously, and got a lot out of both.”
Indeed, Ridley was an opportunist at the US Am, played with some of the heaviest Bermuda rough ever seen for a USGA championship. Through the first seven rounds, he estimated he was 23-over par, with only four birdies. (“Not super golf,” he said at the time.) By contrast, Fergus, an All-American at the University of Houston who won 11 college tournaments, figured he was about four-over par. And none of his matches had reached the 17th hole. But in the final, Ridley made six birdies in the morning round to go 5 up. He was still 4 up with five holes to play but attributed “a lot of choking” to the loss of three in a row to stand 1 up on the 17th tee. On that hole, he left a seven-footer for a par that would have won the championship hanging on the lip.
As he told The New York Times, “I was feeling bad, and I had to force myself to keep my mind clear and not let my mind wander. I told myself, If you do something without thinking it out … well, just don’t do it.”
On the 18th hole, Ridley gathered himself enough to make bogey to Fergus’ double-bogey to win, 2 up.
Ridley has been adroit at surviving difficult moments in his public golf life. He was USGA president in his first term during the debacle at the 2004 US Open at Shinnecock Hills, when a windblown green that had been rolled on Saturday morning did not receive enough water on the morning of the final round, causing balls to roll off the putting surface uncontrollably. Although the association’s staff was skewered by the players and the media, Ridley managed to avoid being the focus.
He was more directly in the line of fire at the 2013 Masters, when as head of the competition committee he made a high-profile mistake on a rules situation involving Tiger Woods.
In the second round, Woods was near the lead when his third shot from about 75 metres on the par-5 15th hole hit the flagstick and caromed into the pond. Woods took a drop that longtime rules official David Eger, watching on television, realised had been about two paces behind the divot hole made by his third shot. Eger called in the violation. If true, it meant Woods had not dropped as near to his original location as possible and was due a two-stroke penalty.
However, when Ridley was told about the situation, he deemed after reviewing the video that Woods’ drop had been close enough to the original spot not to incur a penalty. But after signing his scorecard, Woods said in a television interview that he had intentionally dropped two yards behind his original spot, thus incriminating himself. With Woods facing disqualification for signing an incorrect scorecard, Masters officials invoked Rule 33-7, which states that “a penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual cases be waived, modified or imposed if the Committee considers such action warranted”.
It was thus determined that because the committee had not discussed the alleged violation with Woods before he had signed his scorecard, he was absolved from disqualification but given a two-stroke penalty before his third round.
In going before the assembled media on Saturday to explain the ruling, Ridley went into some detail about not originally believing Woods had violated the rule. When asked whether he might have done things differently, Ridley said, “There’s not a day that goes by that there are not some things I wish I would have done differently.” The humanness of that answer made Ridley sympathetic and for the most part spared him further criticism.
Of course, Ridley will not inherit the title of most powerful figure in golf by default. Like every chairman, he will be tested by controversial issues and rulings, the rate of which have seemed to accelerate in recent years. Likely waiting for Ridley are intense discussions about further lengthening the golf course and whether to allow spectators the use of mobile phones.
On the other hand, as the most accomplished player to achieve the chairmanship, and the best in the Masters hierarchy since Jones, there’s a reasonable expectation that Ridley will be seen as a chairman more responsive to the input and concerns of tournament competitors.
Says Strange: “I hope that as someone who really understands the game from a player’s perspective, Fred will take some of the golf course back to what it used to be, where there was more openness and fewer trees.”
It would be a surprise if Ridley is fully able to escape the shadow of Payne, who will be around as chairman emeritus and will surely follow Roberts into the World Golf Hall of Fame. No one doubts that Payne will give Ridley plenty of space, following the sensibility of his statement in 2008 that “there are two personalities which will always define Augusta National: Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts. All the rest of us came and went, and I’m going to fall into that latter category.”
But certainly he hasn’t. And based on his extraordinary contribution as chairman, he won’t.