On Masters Sunday, while Augusta National was going all Mardi Gras over Tiger Woods’ victory, Billy Payne sat on the porch of one of the tidy white cottages that fringe the course. He has connections.
There, with his wife and grandchildren, Payne was, he said, “just overwhelmed by the excitement and the emotion.”
“As Tiger approached the 18th hole, golly, it was unbelievable. I’ll never forget it. It was electrifying,” he said.
It had been nine years since Payne, as Augusta National’s chairman, had scolded Woods for the tawdry scandal that followed him to the 2010 Masters. Time enough to cauterize a lot of wounds.
“It is simply not the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here,” Payne said at the time during the chairman’s annual news conference. “It is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.”
On Masters Sunday 2019, Woods having outlived the stench of that affair, no one seemed worried about how the grandkids would feel. Least of all one, now-former, chairman of the club.
“They love him,” Payne said, “as do I.”
“I’m his biggest fan, and he knows I’ve been since all the way back to then,” he said, tracing the waves of their relationship. “We have a great friendship, and he knows I have been in his corner the whole way.
“Nobody was prouder than me, and nobody has predicted more than me that he would make that kind of comeback. I was ecstatic about it.”
And that won’t even be the best golf story involving the Payne family this year. Grandpa is about to be a Hall of Famer.
“I’ve had fun with some of my grandchildren telling them that I must obviously be a pretty good golfer – I’m in the Hall of Fame,” said Payne, who most assuredly did not get there by the grace of his swing.
Payne’s late father, a square-cut football man and a darn good Dawg, used to tell his boy that you’d never catch him wasting any time on a fancy-pants sport like golf. Now, Payne idolized his father, and still does. But in one very significant way, the acorn fell far from that oak, rolled all the way to Augusta, down Magnolia Lane, kept rolling and will soon come to rest at the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Golf has been good to Payne, who was Augusta National’s chairman from 2006-17, and as such, the keeper of the Masters. And golf decided that he has been so good to it that he deserves a place among its leading lights. While the physical building is in Florida, Payne, 71, will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame with four others in a ceremony Monday in California, in advance of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
“So many of my friends who did all the work that was responsible for whatever honors I’ve gotten, they’re going to be there to celebrate with me,” Payne said this week. “And we’re gonna have a great time.”
After bringing the Summer Olympics to Atlanta in 1996, much of Payne’s energies were wrapped up in Augusta National during a period of immense change. Notably, the club finally began admitting women members; it took a grow-the-game initiative globally; it brought kids to the course for a little drive, pitch and putt contest. And it preserved the Masters as the world’s most prestigious golf tournament.
And, eventually, too late for Atlanta in ’96, Payne’s goal of getting golf back into the Olympics was realized.
Early in the Payne regime, he helped persuade Arnold Palmer to serve as an honorary Masters starter, which he did until his death in 2016. Jack Nicklaus, in 2010, and Gary Player, in 2012, would join the ceremony
Now, in the alphabetical roster of Hall of Famers, Payne is two names removed from Palmer.
In the Hall, Payne will join 29 Masters winners, the Augusta National foundational twosome of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts and the Augusta National course architect, Alister MacKenzie.
“(This induction) is a salute to Augusta National’s long history and service to golf and our relatively recent but ongoing redirection of efforts and resources to try to help grow the game,” Payne said. “It’s not individually directed. It’s a thank you to the organization for jumping in big-time to partner with the other golfing organizations to see if we can do some good.
“My job was to keep the car in the road,” he said. “That’s Chairman Ridley’s job now. And hopefully we do it well and in a way (Jones and Roberts) originally intended.”
During the induction, he’ll be introduced by his successor at Augusta National, Fred Ridley.
The theme of his induction speech will be, Payne said, “The same theme I’ve espoused my entire life. I’ve had a blessed life that has been pretty much determined by friends who have been amazingly loyal, incredibly loving and very tolerant of many of my mistakes and misdirections. But they have guided my life and every success I’ve ever been a part of.”
These days, Payne is a partner with his son in a real estate corporation. He plays golf through persistent back issues, the kind that bark at him most when hitting down and through a ball on the fairway. “The other day someone said, hell, why don’t you tee up every shot? Nobody cares. Maybe that’s the solution,” Payne said laughingly. Can’t Hall of Famers circumvent certain rules of golf?
And Payne is spending more time indulging what he calls his first love – bass fishing.
FYI, the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame is located in Springfield, Mo., and has plenty of room should he feel the need to conquer another field.
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