Billy Payne ruled more with an open mind than an iron fist.
As the sixth chairman of Augusta National Golf Club — and the first with no direct link to co-founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts — he held fast to the heritage and traditions of the club, while looking beyond Magnolia Lane at how the Masters could wield influence around the world for more than one week of the year.
Women joined Augusta National for the first time. Juniors were allowed to attend the Masters for free with an adult. Amateurs from the Asia Pacific region and throughout Latin America could dream about competing for a green jacket.
Payne announced Wednesday that he is retiring after 11 years of change that made the Augusta National logo more powerful than ever.
“There are two people that matter here — Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones,” Payne said. “The rest of us are custodians. We do our best to first embrace, and thereafter hopefully to advance their philosophies for this club and for the game of golf — their obsession for detail, their passion to be the best. And I’ve done that now for a considerable number of years.”
He officially retires on Oct. 16 when the club, which is closed during the summer, opens for a new season.
Payne will be succeeded by Fred Ridley, a former U.S. Amateur champion and USGA president who is chairman of the Masters competition committee. Ridley will be the seventh chairman, and the first to have played in the Masters.
Payne stays on as chairman emeritus.
Augusta National speaks with one voice, and in that respect, Payne was no different from the other chairmen. With his Southern, homespun style, the 69-year-old Georgia native was more about collaboration than calling all the shots.
Payne ends a remarkable career marked by two sporting events in which he had little previous experience.
He had never been to the Olympics when Payne, a little-known real estate lawyer, led a long-shot bid to bring the Summer Games to Atlanta in 1996. He relied heavily on corporate support, and he showed early signs of his commitment to diversity and inclusion. He chose two women among the first five volunteers he selected for the Atlanta organizing committee.
Payne did not take up golf until his adult years. He was invited to join Augusta National in 1997, a year after he concluded his work with the Atlanta Games. Nine years later, Hootie Johnson selected him as his successor as chairman.
“I committed my entire life to both at those respective times,” he said of his work on the Olympics and at Augusta National.
Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore became the first women to join Augusta National in 2012, no doubt an influence when the Royal & Ancient at St. Andrews, and later Muirfield and Royal Troon, added women to its membership rolls.
That was but a small part of Payne’s influence over the club and the Masters.
Wanting to expand the reach of golf, he worked with the R&A to start the Asia-Pacific Amateur, awarding the winner a spot in the Masters with hopes it would create heroes in an emerging market. The second winner was Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, who now is No. 2 in the world. The USGA and R&A then joined with Augusta National’s next venture, the Latin America Amateur.
Payne also brought in the USGA and PGA of America to start the Drive, Chip and Putt competition, which attracts children all over the country to compete in golf skills, with the finals held at Augusta National on the Sunday before the Masters.
“Forget about the fringe things,” former USGA executive director David Fay said. “He took the opportunity to make sure that Augusta National was not just one of the four majors, but that it had a role at the table in decision-making for the game of golf.”
Payne also invested heavily at the club by scooping up land around the perimeter to enhance the tournament. That includes free parking for the spectators, and the opening of Berckmans Place, a state-of-the-art hospitality area just beyond the fifth fairway.
Payne loves to tell the story of how his father would always ask him, “Did you do your best?” Payne says he never felt he could answer affirmatively, which drove him to a relentless work ethic in bringing the Olympics to Atlanta and in his role as Augusta National chairman.
“Yes, there’s a striving for perfection,” Payne said. “Striving for perfection is truly an obsession here, in the context of the Masters. We want to be able to provide for our patrons, our fans around the world, the absolute best sporting experience they have ever encountered. And we go to extremes to try to do that.
“We never get it quite right,” he said. “But man, we try hard.”
Ridley first met Roberts when he played the Masters in 1976 as the U.S. Amateur champion. Like Payne, his background is in real estate law. Payne recalls that when he began his tenure as chairman, his predecessor told him the most important job he faced was finding his own successor.
Payne says health was not the reason behind his retirement. He had triple-bypass surgery when he was 34, and another triple bypass in 1993 while working on the Atlanta Games. He was more concerned about his back, which has kept him from playing golf as much as he would like.
“This honor is too great for one person to claim as their own for too long a period of time,” Payne said. “I retire knowing it is simply the right thing to do — and at the right moment — to open the door and invite someone new to be called upon to lead.”