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.
Michael Bamberger of Sports Illustrated 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.