Name-dropping

Times Staff Writer

Tradition at Augusta National Golf Club is as sturdy as the massive pine trees that line the fairways, so it should be no surprise that the club chairman is dutifully addressed as "Mister" before his last name as a sign of respect.

But the new guy is Billy. He's just Billy, not Mr. Payne, even though he's formally known as William Porter Payne. That's a mouthful of respect for Payne, a 59-year-old former All-Southeastern Conference football player, turned lawyer, turned Atlanta Olympics high roller, and now the man with the top job at the most powerful golf club in the world. With the Florida swing acting as a prelude to golf's first major tournament of the year, Payne stands at the helm of the Masters, which begins Thursday.

But plain old Billy?

"You know, it doesn't matter to me," Payne said. "I sure do respond to that. That's just who I am. Now, I get called everything. I get called Mr. Chairman, Billy, 'Hey you.' I think that to the extent that I am called Mr. Chairman, they're just trying to be nice.

"During the Olympics, I became Billy with no last name. To people in Atlanta, I was just Billy, and I'm still Billy. I like it."

There have been only five other chairmen at this club that occupies some of golf's choicest real estate. The first was Bobby, as in Jones, and the last one before Payne was Hootie, as in Johnson, both men doing just fine in the one-name department.

As they're saying around here, it's Billy's turn now, as the handpicked successor of Johnson, whose eight-year tenure ended with his retirement in May. Insiders expect Payne to embrace the status quo at Augusta National and the Masters. He's as traditional as the furniture in his office.

Johnson is now chairman emeritus and Payne has slid behind the large, wooden desk in the second-floor paneled office with the high-backed chairs and the plush leather sofa.

There is an oil painting of Jones on the wall behind the desk. The artist? Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The scent in the room is of understated power, a force that will come in handy for Payne, just as Johnson realized its great value and also experienced a few of its side effects. Johnson's legacy as chairman is still being formed, but it is likely to include his stewardship in lengthening and tightening the fabled layout, and also his famous fight against changing club policy to allow female members.

During Johnson's tenure, Augusta National was lengthened four times; 520 yards were added and it now measures 7,445 yards.

As for the chance of women being allowed in, Payne said any deliberations about club membership will be done by the club members.

"I don't have anything to add to that answer," he said more than once.

Payne said Johnson could not have done a better job.

"He is a dear friend of mine and I would rate his performance a 10. I thought he faced the issue of technology threatening our course and dealt with it decisively, properly and in the best interests of our tournament.

"Equally as important, he was much aware of the importance of Augusta National and the preservations of our traditions and its place in the game of golf."

Payne's experience in the world's spotlight as president and chief executive of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games is regarded as a plus, although it was far from smooth sailing. The 1996 Summer Games had some exasperating glitches, especially in the early going, involving transportation and technology.

And on July 27, an explosion of three pipe bombs killed two and wounded 111 in Centennial Park, built for the Games. There was no Rudy Giuliani moment for Payne, who saw the matter fall immediately under the direction of the International Olympic Committee, which handled the aftermath of the violence. In 2005, Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to the bombing, as well as to four others.

But the Atlanta Games managed to break even on their $1.72-billion budget and Payne was pleased.

In its bid, ACOG had forecast a $156-million surplus, but the 1996 Olympics brought an estimated $4.4 billion into Atlanta's economy, according to a study by the Georgia Institute of Technology. Meanwhile, Payne was left to pay off a personal debt of $1 million that he started piling up when he first began pushing for the Olympics in 1987.

Linda Stephenson, an original member of Atlanta's Olympic bid committee and later a managing director of Olympic programs, said she continued to work as a volunteer with Payne when he shifted his attention to golf as the man behind the 1998 Tour Championship, held at Atlanta's East Lake Golf Club.

"He's a visionary and he's also a very tough taskmaster," she said. "If you take something on, he expects you to give 100%, just like he does."

Payne, who had launched an unsuccessful campaign to include golf in the Olympics and hold the competition at Augusta National, was admitted as a club member in 1997.

But there were setbacks for Payne after he joined the club. He was beset by health problems that forced heart surgery. There was a history of heart disease in his family. A onetime smoker who avoided exercise, he changed tactics immediately and learned to love the treadmill.

Payne became chairman of the Masters media committee in 2000. Johnson began grooming him to be the next chairman almost immediately, Payne believes.

Vince Dooley, Payne's football coach at Georgia, says he remembers recruiting him from Dykes High in Atlanta (now Sutton Middle School). Dooley was familiar with Payne's family. He knew Payne's father, Porter, who played at Georgia in the late 1940s. Billy was born in Athens while his father played for the Bulldogs.

A high school quarterback, Payne was an end at Georgia and played defensive end and outside linebacker as a senior when he was all-SEC.

"I've always labeled him a 60-minute player," Dooley said. "He's the type of guy you like to have in the game all the time. It's still true. What he took on, bringing the Olympics to Atlanta and Georgia, was against all odds. He was willing to dream big."

Payne isn't much into dreaming in his new job, which is more about planning for the future of the Masters. He said his goals are to meet the needs of all the tournament's constituents, including players, fans and media. It's not too farfetched to look 10 years down the road, Payne said.

Augusta National has acquired dozens of lots that adjoin the property and expansion is in the works. Besides a new driving range, the only other announced project is a parking area across Berckman's Road. Payne said the club's goal of parking every vehicle in that location will be 70% complete by 2010.

The work on the course for this year is complete, with only minor changes, including adding to the front of the 11th and 15th tees and changing the cut line on the right side of the 11th fairway.

"Hopefully, for the duration of my turn, we would not need to resort to any substantive changes," Payne said.

"Given the way the relative field competed ... absent continued technological advances, it seems to me we should have it right for quite a while. I will caveat that by saying we don't take any option off the table when it comes to preserving the integrity of this course."

Charles Howell III, an Augusta native, said he spoke for many of his playing peers who welcome Payne to the chair behind the big wooden desk.

"He'll bring a new perspective," Howell said, "a fresh perspective from before and that's going to be nice."

To hear Payne say it, most anything's possible, because he's got the best job in the world, a dream job. The arena of new media piques his interest, but there's much to do and a chairman can only do so much. And his plate is already full with his involvement in two investment banking firms in Atlanta.

But besides that, if there's anything Payne has learned from business, it's to be yourself in your job.

"I don't personally possess any Tiger Woods talents, any Jack Welch business acumen," he said. "But I am a little bit of all my friends, and so I view my role here as to preserve this great treasure we have in the Masters. And at the end of the day, I will be known for nothing more than I was the sixth chairman, or whatever. I'm on the list."

Back home, he and Martha, his wife of 39 years, baby-sit three or four nights a week. Payne said their newest grandchild is William Porter Payne III.

They call him Billy.

thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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