Rich Hofmann | Change is not part of Masters plan

Posted: April 05, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga. - As the new chairman of Augusta National, Billy Payne attended his first Champions' Dinner on Tuesday night, all of the Masters' past winners gathered to swap stories and embrace their common history. It has been less than a year since Payne took over from Hootie Johnson, and he said that his biggest surprise so far was something he learned at the dinner.

"And I can't talk about it," Payne said, and everyone in the room laughed.

Same as the old boss . . .

On the podium in the interview room, Payne sat between Fred Ridley, the new chairman of the rules and competition committees, and Craig Heatley, the new chairman of the media committee (which was Payne's old job here). The relative youth of the three of them - Payne was clearly the oldest, at age 59 - is what struck you first, seeing as how the three predominant colors around here have always been green, white and gray. The New Zealand accent of Heatley was next.

"And those of you who have struggled with my slow Southern drawl for these last 6 years are really in for a treat now," Payne said.

The chairman's first announcement was a return to the time when PGA Tour winners received automatic Masters invitations. It will be a popular decision.

Payne has been active in recent months, doing many more

interviews than his recent

predecessors, announcing a more expansive online presence for the tournament. The image he has presented so far is

dynamic.

But how bold can you be when the first line of the job description is to say no?

Maybe this is all cosmetic, maybe not. Payne might have been the local businessman who brought the Olympics to Atlanta, but this Augusta thing is a whole different animal.

Whoever wears the green, the essence of the place is not likely to change, the essence being the determination not to let money dictate. For all of the easy fun

everyone has had over the years with Hootie and the jackets - I mean, there was no higher comedy than in 2003 when Johnson talked about the issue of private clubs and women and said that there were all kinds of examples of single-sex clubs in American society, like "sewing circles" - the place really is an oasis of

old-time sporting sensibility in a dollar-driven world. And that part is good.

The membership debate is tired; whether or not any of us like it, the place is a private club. But wherever a person stands on that, it is impossible to deny the appeal, in the matter of the golf tournament itself, of the whole "time-stands-still" nature of the Masters.

And the irony: They make changes here mostly so that the course will play like it used to play. When they change, it is to defend the status quo. Mostly, though, they just keep things the same, starting with the prices of the coveted badges that are so openly sought by sign-waving people along neighboring Washington Road.

"Well, we have no thoughts about ever charging what they are worth," Payne said. "You know, one of the great things about the Masters that distinguishes us once again above all other sporting events: that we want the experience to not only be the best but to be affordable. And we take certain things very, very seriously. Like, you know, the cost of a pimento cheese sandwich is just as important as how high the second cut is going to be."

Asked if he often finds himself rejecting proposed changes, Payne drew a laugh by saying, "We don't have a suggestion box."

Still, one can only imagine the number of commercial opportunities he turns down.

"Absolutely," he said. "There are countless commercial

institutions that would love to

associate and affiliate with the Masters golf tournament. We are very selective. We are very protective."

This all began a long time ago, with a golfer named Bobby Jones and with the club's first chairman, Clifford Roberts. They wrote the playbook and none of their successors has dared to deviate very far. They embrace modernity on their terms. They use television and technology and they refuse to be used by them.

Some of the stories written about Payne say he is the man to bring Augusta National into the 21st Century. He bristles at the suggestion.

"Irrelevant," he said.

"There are two personalities which will always define Augusta National: Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts.

"All the rest of us just came and went, and I'm going to fall

into that latter category."

Same as the old boss, then. Billy Payne would consider that to be the highest of compliments. *

Send e-mail to

hofmanr@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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