July 02, 2008

A Real Mover And Shaker

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Payne became the club's sixth chairman less than 10 years after becoming a member.

Among the many misconceptions of Augusta National GC is that it resists change. Actually, the club constantly evolves albeit, like the massive live oak behind the clubhouse and the ancient wisteria vine that snarls through it, slowly and on its own terms. But as a new generation takes over, none more prominently than Billy Payne, who last May succeeded Hootie Johnson as club chairman, the pace may quicken. Indications that Payne will usher in a more open era at Augusta National are subtle but noticeable. Even in private conversations, club employees always referred to Johnson as "The Chairman" or "Mr. Johnson." But Payne is simply "Billy." At a place where language matters—spectators are "patrons" and rough is "the second cut"—such informality is directed from the top. And at a club where all decisions are carefully made, and one that has been slapped around at times by the fourth estate, it is significant the new chairman used to run the Masters media committee.

Augusta National has a Baby Boomer at the helm, its first chairman born after World War II and a leader who won the 1996 Olympic Games for Atlanta by leaning heavily on businessmen who made that city the beacon of the South during the 1960s civil rights movement. While few things result from the effort of one person, Atlanta never would have gotten the Games were it not for Payne. Brilliant at one-on-one politicking, he triumphed by glad-handing International Olympic Committee delegates in the halls of IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, and in Tokyo, where the final decision was made, all the while sporting an immodest button declaring, "HI, I'M BILLY PAYNE." Not bad for a guy who had never been abroad. That energy is now engaged at one of golf's most prestigious events and most private clubs.

On a warm January day, with the buzz of the buildup to his first Masters as chairman filling the air, Payne walks around his desk and takes a seat within arm's length of the couch across from it. Motivated by two triple-bypass heart surgeries and a history of early death in his family, Payne works out daily, and the former All-SEC defensive end fills out his member's green jacket with a muscular 205 pounds stretched over a 6-foot-2 frame. The same charm that won the Atlanta Olympics no doubt helped Payne become chairman, even though he had been a member for less than 10 years. But just as important was a keen intellect and relentless determination. Payne sits tall in his chair and is always one beat ahead of the conversation, beginning answers before questions are finished—verification of his high-octane reputation.

Payne was a $250,000-a-year real-estate lawyer before beginning his Olympic bid in 1987 and now is a wealthy man with multiple country-club memberships, having parlayed the Games into an extremely successful career. A lawyer with Gleacher Partners LLC in Atlanta, Payne secures investment-banking opportunities for the New York-based company in the Southeast. While being the first club chairman who didn't know Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, Payne is, unlike any of the previous five chairmen, a lifelong Georgian born ironically in Athens, the city named for the Greek capital that hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and from which Payne snatched the centennial Games. Payne, who once said, "If you keep score, you have to be the best," shifts forward in his chair when asked what criteria will be used to evaluate his performance as chairman.

"It's funny, I've thought about that," he says. "First, you would have to put, above all else, a mandate to preserve the tradition, reputation and contribution the Masters makes to the game of golf. And, if you are lucky enough, perhaps through some initiative or innovation, you may be able to advance it just a little bit. If I am able to preserve the traditions of Bob Jones and Clifford Roberts and those who followed them, then I'll be perfectly satisfied."

All the right words were said: Tradition, reputation, mandate, Masters, Jones and Roberts. But the key phrase is the one parenthetically slipped in: "You may be able to advance it just a little bit." Payne is all about advancing things, all about leaving his mark. He will listen to the members, but he also will have things to say. Part of his talent, according to those who know him, is an ability to lead people to feel that his ideas are in their best interest.

"Billy is not the kind of person who sits back and lets things happen," says Bill Dahlberg, the former chairman of Southern Company and one of those people Payne enlisted in his Olympic bid. "He makes things happen. I know he will respect the traditions and heritage of Augusta and the Masters, but I think over time he'll certainly put his fingerprints on it. He'll do those things that he thinks are progressive and need to be done. He has a great skill at bringing people into the fold."

Johnson oversaw a lot of change at Augusta National during his eight years as chairman—growing rough, stretching the course from 6,925 yards to 7,445 and lengthening the TV broadcast among them. He also left one prickly issue on Payne's plate: the lack of female members. While Johnson publicly took on Martha Burk, Payne deftly deflects the matter while curiously leaving a door partially open. "All membership issues are going to be deliberated by the membership," Payne says, making it clear the club will act out of consensus, not succumb to pressure. "And we are going to make decisions about [female members]," he adds, indicating the matter will be visited anew and not merely decided by the momentum from the past.

Payne flourishes in such discussions. He is, after all, the man who told the IOC the average temperature in Atlanta during July and August (the months the Olympics were to be held) is 75, a number he calculated by taking the average daytime high of 87.6, adding it to the average nighttime low and dividing by two. "We just gave them the facts," Payne told Time in 1996. "We didn't tell them how to do the arithmetic." He is a man who looked out his office, saw dilapidated warehouses and envisioned Centennial Olympic Park, which now occupies the space. And he is a man who, during his Olympic bid, leaned heavily on Atlanta's civil rights pioneers.

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"You have to think that someone like Billy has some of that in his blood, too," says Horace Sibley, a retired lawyer who worked with Payne for 10 years on the Olympics. "One of the things we were selling to the world is that we were the cradle of the civil rights movement." Asked how Payne would react when the issue of female members at Augusta National is discussed, Sibley, who is not a member, says: "All I know is that two of the first five volunteers [for the Olympic committee] he selected were women. Obviously, he respects their point of view."

William Porter Payne was born Oct. 13, 1947, when his father, Porter Otis Payne, was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Georgia. The elder Payne was captain of the Bulldogs' 1949 football team and after graduation moved to Atlanta, married Mary Lowe, sold insurance and raised two daughters, Portia and Patti (the latter of whom died of cancer at age 40). His only son, Billy, admits he was driven by a desire to make his father proud.

As quarterback, Billy Payne led Dykes High School to the North Georgia championship in 1964 then followed his father to Georgia, where coach Vince Dooley made him a defensive end. Payne won All-SEC honors in 1968 when, like his father, he was team captain. After graduating from law school at Georgia in 1973, Payne married Martha Beard, the only woman he dated in college, and the couple moved to Atlanta where Billy became a real-estate lawyer. They raised a son, William Porter Payne Jr., a successful businessman, and a daughter, Elizabeth Sikes, a stay-at-home mom. Photos of Payne's eight grandchildren adorn his Augusta National office.

In 1982, just nine years into their idyllic life, everything changed. At 53, Porter Payne died of a heart attack. Five weeks later Billy, just 34, had triple-bypass surgery. Still, he smoked, ate poorly and started his workday at 4 a.m. In April 1993, three years after Atlanta was awarded the Games and three years before they were to take place, Payne had a second triple bypass. Personal neglect was the byproduct of the passion with which he pursued an Olympic dream few besides him could envision.

"When Billy brought up the idea [of getting the Olympics] I said, 'Billy, I think you'd be wasting your time and money,' " recalls Tom Cousins, the Atlanta businessman and Augusta National member who in the mid '90s rescued East Lake GC from ruin. "And I'm sure he got that from most places he went." Certainly he did from Dahlberg. "I was like everybody else," Dahlberg says. "I thought he was crazy." But Payne pursued the Olympics with the same determination he used in chasing down running backs. He mortgaged his home and assumed $1.5 million of debt to help finance the early stages of the bid. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely. Once funding started to roll in, he was able to pay himself an annual salary that grew to nearly $700,000, well in excess of the $265,000 Peter Ueberroth made as head of the U.S. Olympic effort for the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

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Cousins, Dahlberg and Sibley were among Payne's early converts. They were white businessmen who, in the 1960s, realized segregation was not only morally wrong but also made bad economic sense. The generous among their critics said they acted with "enlightened self-interest." The segregationists called them "capitulating Atlanta bastards." Behind people such as Jimmy Carter, the Georgia governor who would become president, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who preached in Atlanta, the city moved forward, emerging as the South's financial capital.

Diversity was a major selling point with the IOC. "When [Olympic committee] people came to Atlanta from Latin America, they saw a Hispanic who was head of Coca-Cola. That said something," Andrew Young, the black mayor of Atlanta at the time, told Ebony in 1996. "The Africans who came here had never been anyplace where they saw people of African descent running the airport, running city hall, the chief of police. That's how we won their votes."

Payne stepped on some toes along the way. While he helped raise $1.8 billion and made Atlanta the first Games financed without government money, he was accused of over-commercializing them by selling the Olympic logo to anyone with a checkbook. Ironically, his biggest blunder involved Augusta National. While scoring a coup by getting golf's governing bodies to support including the sport in the 1996 Games, he was blindsided by outrage when Augusta National was offered as the venue. Payne saw it as a way to open the club's doors to women and minorities, but others were angered a club with one black member at that time and no women would even be considered.

"I don't know what I would have done," Anita deFrantz, the only American on the IOC executive committee at the time, told The Augusta Chronicle in 1993. "The hard part for me was Augusta [National]—for all the obvious reasons," said deFrantz, who is black. Announced in October 1992, the idea was withdrawn three months later, and golf still remains out of the Olympics. Payne did impress Augusta National members with his loyalty by never publicly criticizing the club's membership practices. In 1997 he was invited to join and in 2000 was made chairman of the media committee.

The Atlanta Games broke even financially and left behind new dorms for Georgia Tech and Georgia State University and Olympic Park, among other structures. Notwithstanding a tragic, fatal bombing and complaints about traffic (Payne says the latter occurred because the city allowed street vendors to clog thoroughfares), most Atlanta residents remember the Games fondly. During the run-up to the Olympics, and after his second heart surgery, Payne started playing golf weekly to unwind, speeding through 18 holes in 90 minutes before church on Sundays, playing alone with his state trooper bodyguard driving the cart.

"It was a combination of me being serious about [golf], but more likely me venting my frustrations," he says. Payne plays more frequently now and at a more relaxed pace, carrying a 6.3-handicap at Peachtree GC in Atlanta. For getaways he has a lakeside home at the Reynolds Plantation golf community between Atlanta and Augusta, and a place at Hammock Dunes CC in Florida. His goal now is to live a long life. He and Martha skipped the 2004 Olympics in Athens because of fears of terrorism, and his workday is usually finished by 3 p.m. so he can head to the gym. "Yes, I could be described as a fanatic," Payne says. "I work out an hour and a half every day, a combination of aerobic and weight training. And I do it seven days a week. It's just part of my life. It's what I do."

The generational change at Augusta National extends beyond Payne, who replaced the 75-year-old Johnson. Fred Ridley, 53, who preceded Augusta National member Walter Driver as USGA president, replaced Will Nicholson, 77, a past USGA president, as chairman of the competition and rules committee, which sets up Augusta National for the Masters. Craig Heatley of New Zealand, also in his 50s, has replaced Payne as chairman of the media committee.

Johnson was a protégé of Roberts and was brought into the club by him. He will be the last Augusta National chairman to claim a direct tie to the club's founders. "It's a missing part of my life that I didn't know those gentlemen," Payne says, "but it was inevitable the next [chairman] was going to be of an age that they didn't have the opportunity." Payne says he plays catch-up by reading the letters and other writings of Jones and Roberts in the club's archives.

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One of those thought to be a contender for the chairman position with a link to the club's tradition was Joe T. Ford, the chairman of the board of Alltel Corp. Ford, 68, had a highly visible role when Jack Stephens was chairman, officiating at many Masters ceremonies in Stephens' place. Also said to be in the running was the 61-year-old Driver. But both can be seen as representing the past at Augusta National, while Payne is the future.

Payne's first Masters as chairman comes 40 years after his first in person, when he brought Martha there in 1967 with tickets he received from a fraternity brother. His first move as chairman was creating a workout room. He also added an hour of TV coverage on the Internet and says reinstating the Masters invitation to all PGA Tour winners eliminated by Johnson is a possibility. The new practice facility championed by Johnson is on track to open in 2010, and patrons this year will notice construction of off-site parking on land purchased near the club.

The course changes under Johnson—criticized by, among others Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, who are members and winners of a combined 10 Masters—get Payne's approval. "I believe they were necessary," he says. "This course should never be reduced to driver-pitching wedge as it was becoming." He adds, however, a rolled-back Masters ball is still possible if another distance explosion occurs. Also possible is a nine-hole exhibition round on the first day of the Masters like those played two decades ago by Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen, this time by the likes of Palmer and Nicklaus.

Go back to that phrase Payne used when discussing how he will score his term as chairman, go back to how he referred to doing something to "advance it just a little bit." This may be an older, mellower Billy Payne than the 40-year-old dynamo who defied all odds to win the Olympics for Atlanta, but the same surgically repaired heart and visionary soul inhabit the man. "Billy will not be shy," says Cousins. "And I think he's got excellent judgment. I think if [the club] needs changes, he'll make them. He's a very strong person. He won't have any hesitation about leading."

Payne fully appreciates he is at a place in his life where he can take it a little bit easier and still, with the chairman position, fulfill his competitive needs. "I would be exaggerating if I said I was as intense about anything as I once was," Payne says. "You start to realize there are more important things than just doing a job all the time. But some of my friends would disagree that I've lost any of my Type A [personality]. It would be more accurate to say that I am more selective when I deploy it." It will be interesting to see when and where he deploys it as Augusta National chairman.