When Billy Payne stepped down as Chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club in fall 2017, it gave the golf world an opportunity to take stock of the accomplishments made during his 11-year tenure. The reaction was universal:
“By shrewdly blending its increased revenues with a broader, more culturally current vision, Payne pushed the previously often hidebound club and its tournament into the 21st century with a vitality that in retrospect is stunning,” wrote Jaime Diaz in Golf World.
“Unlike any of his five predecessors, Payne reached far beyond Augusta National’s boundaries and made the club and the Masters Tournament a force beyond one week a year in April,” said Bob Harig on ESPN.
Sports Illustrated’s Michael Bamberger was even more direct: “Augusta National Golf Club has never had a Chairman like William Porter Payne, not even Clifford Roberts.”
High praise for a man who came rather late to the game. Payne, who was born in Athens, Georgia, fell first for football and earned All-American honors in 1968 as a defensive end for his hometown University of Georgia Bulldogs.
After opening a law firm in Atlanta, Payne’s focus still wasn’t on golf. It was on the Olympics. Looking back on it now, the process of bringing the 1996 Olympic Games to Atlanta sounds like the plot from a movie, but it’s true. Payne helped raise money for a new sanctuary at his church, and the thrill of getting people together for a common cause deeply inspired him.
“My wife Martha and I were driving home from church and I said, ‘You know, that was a really special feeling. I never had that before. We’ve got to think of something else,’” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2014. “The next morning, I go to my law practice. I got my legal pad. I’m writing down things that would motivate people. Something big. Driving home that night, I was still thinking. Then the Olympics jumped into my mind. I had no idea what the [selection] process was. I walked in and said to my wife, ‘I’ve got it—we’re going to bring the Olympics to Atlanta.’”
The rest was history. Despite barely being known on the world stage, Payne used his now-legendary management skills to bring together the city and state’s most influential leaders and, eventually, win the bid to host.
"What I do is I do my very best at everything that I attempt to do. Sometimes it might not be good enough. Sometimes it may be misdirected. Nevertheless, I’m never going to be in the place where lack of effort was the contributing factor in failure." -Billy Payne
Among his many awards for pulling off perhaps the biggest event in the city’s history, Payne was invited to join Augusta National in 1997. In 2006, he was selected to be the club’s sixth Chairman. He was faced with an enormous list of challenges, and set about them in the only way he knows how.
“I never learned, and to this day have not learned, to pace myself,” he told the AJC. “I am all-out, full throttle.”
Over the course of his 11 years at the helm of the world’s most famous and influential golf club, Payne’s achievements are staggering.
Perhaps the thorniest issue was the club’s all-male membership. After his predecessor William “Hootie” Johnson famously defied calls to allow women into the club, Payne called upon every bit of his statesmanship to guide it in a progressive new direction. In 2012, the club announced that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore would be its first female members.
“Admitting women may very well be his biggest personal achievement, even if he never acknowledges it as such,” Harig wrote. “While largely symbolic to the outside world, it was an important step to take, given Augusta National’s seat at golf’s governing table and its efforts to grow the game.”
Those efforts to grow the game may just be Payne’s lasting legacy. Two major amateur events were created under his guidance—the Latin America Amateur and the Asia-Pacific Amateur—and the winners of which are invited to play in the Masters. It is difficult to measure the impact of these events, but it is not hyperbole to say that young people worldwide who may have never considered golf before are now spending untold hours on their craft while dreaming of an invite to Augusta.
In 2014, Payne focused on yet another youth initiative, this time closer to home. Once again using the power of Augusta, he worked with the USGA and the PGA of America to launch the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. It was an instant success, and watching youngsters from all over the United States compete at Augusta the day before tournament week has quickly become part of the Masters experience.
Beyond those glittering accomplishments, Payne worked tirelessly behind the scenes to grow the stature, reach and financial might of the club and the tournament. Viewers worldwide today can see more of the Masters than ever before.
In short, he left the club in a much better place than he found it. And while Payne himself would shy away from the compliments showered upon him after his tenure, no one can say they are undeserved.