April 16, 2008

The View

Payne is the Masters' gain

Billy Payne, Masters Chairman

Billy Payne, Masters Chairman

Every indication is that in Billy Payne, (pictured) the powers that run Augusta National GC have chosen the right man to steer a club steeped in tradition through the tricky waters of the 21st century. After just two Masters as chairman, Payne's imprint is clear at golf's most-watched event, and all of it is good.

Whether it's allowing children in for free, switching the cable coverage to ESPN or permitting TV audiences to see the Wednesday Par 3 Contest, Payne has made it clear he wants Augusta National, already a quasi-governing body of the game, to play a more active role in growing the game. Which brings us to Payne's biggest challenge: carrying out the balancing act between progress and tradition.

Who can argue with any of the moves mentioned above? Exposing children to golf sows the seeds for golf's future. And Arnold Palmer's tee shot to a foot on the first hole of the Par 3 Contest alone justified the decision to put it on TV. But if the Masters is a tradition unlike any other, what about the parts of the tradition that need to be protected?

Such as? The hand-operated leader boards, for one. Nothing in golf is as exciting without actually seeing a golf shot struck. Anticipation is an intense emotion, and when a number is removed for a player in contention, the wait to see if he has birdied or bogeyed is part of the fun of the tournament. Please, Mr. Chairman, don't ever replace those with electronic leader boards.

There are a few other low-tech aspects of the Masters that need to be maintained. The pairing sheets are not glossy, overly produced vehicles for advertisements but rather simple pieces of paper that tell you all you need to know: who plays together and when. No need to be more complicated than that.

Let's talk about food. The concessions on the course are simple sandwiches, chips, candy, soda and beer. The smell of hotdogs or hamburgers cooking isn't to be found anywhere on the course. Why change that? And all the food comes in wrappers that say "Masters" and not a brand name. That's pretty cool.

And definitely don't change this: There is no price gouging at the Masters. Anyone fortunate enough to get in will find food at affordable prices. Two bucks for a beer, three if you want an import. How about a grilled chicken breast sandwich for $2.50, or a pimento cheese sandwich for $1.50? Those are some traditions worth preserving.

From 1962 until 1999, the first two rounds of the Masters were played in twosomes, and the groups were repaired after the first round. That tradition was abandoned when the field grew into the mid-1990s, and there was concern not all would finish before dark. Now the tournament is played in threesomes, but everyone starts their round on the first tee. I prefer that method over making half the field tee off on No. 10, as they do at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. The course should be played in the order the architect designed the holes. That's another tradition worth preserving.

Part of the beauty of the Masters is that they don't over-think things. What Payne understands is some things don't need to be messed with. He understands -- and respects -- tradition.