Billy Payne likes to talk about a key piece of advice he received from his predecessor as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament.
“I remember Hootie (Johnson) told me when I became chairman, you’re going to be judged by how much money you lose on the concession business,” Payne said with a laugh. “The more you lose, the better you’re going to be loved.”
Payne, who oversaw the club and tournament from 2006-2017, stepped down in August and was replaced by Fred Ridley. Payne has assumed the title of chairman emeritus.
Judged solely on concessions, Payne was a resounding success.
“I can’t tell you how many letters I get after every tournament,” he said. “'Mr. Payne, I’ve wanted to come to the Masters all my life, and brought my family of four and we had lunch and it was $11 and whatever.' And they give me the whole menu they had.
“We don’t make any money off concessions, and we don’t want to. We want people to feel like they’re getting value.”
Judging his tenure as a whole, no chairman since co-founder and first chairman Clifford Roberts did more. Payne welcomed the first female members at Augusta National, embraced digital technology to promote the Masters, sought new ways to grow golf and oversaw the most ambitious building phase in the club’s history.
“Billy was really the first chairman to embrace that the Masters is the Mona Lisa of sports,” one club member said. “We have a responsibility to the game, how are we going to grow the game? There was a lot more inclusion. Before it might have been more isolated.”
Payne’s predecessor oversaw two major renovations to Augusta National during his tenure. Other than a few minor adjustments, Payne left the course largely untouched.
Instead, he focused on inclusion.
In 2012, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore were invited to join nearly a decade after the club’s membership practices were criticized by a national women’s organization.
“It was fantastic,” Payne said of the female members. “I’ve said repeatedly I don’t really make a distinction. I want to beat Condi Rice out of her $5, too. They’re golfers and they’re friends.”
With golf struggling to attract new players because of time and money, Payne joined forces with golf’s governing bodies to create the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. The annual event for children ages 7-15 attracts thousands of youngsters who strive to reach the finals held at Augusta National on the eve of the Masters.
Payne and the game’s ruling bodies also created two new amateur tournaments, the Asia-Pacific Amateur and Latin America Amateur. He offered a Masters berth to the winner to give each tournament an immediate boost.
He also increased the tournament’s digital presence, bringing the latest in television technology to the broadcasts. He also expanded content available on the tournament website with live video channels and a tracking feature that enabled patrons to follow the shots of each player.
Payne focused on carrying the Southern style of architecture throughout the club’s grounds.
“Operationally, of course, we’ve grown, so we needed more space,” he said. “But it doesn’t have to be ugly space. It can be beautiful space, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”
He transformed Augusta National’s grounds by improving parking, on-course amenities, hospitality and even how patrons arrived at the course with the realignment of Berckmans Road.
Payne said that he was just trying to follow the mantra of co-founders Bobby Jones and Roberts, which was to constantly strive for improvement.
“I think all chairmen after our first two founders are custodians of their dreams and aspirations,” Payne said. “We try to maintain it and, if we can, make it a little better.”
Reach John Boyette at (706) 823-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.