AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - With an unwavering commitment to tradition, Augusta National has been accused of being stuck in the past but club chairman Billy Payne on Wednesday assured that the home of the Masters is prepared for change.
Even at staid Augusta National, change is inevitable and Payne was asked to gaze into a crystal ball and comment on everything from his own future and Arnold Palmer’s status as an honorary starter to tweaking the golf course that hosts the year’s first major.
Certainly these are far less turbulent times for one of the world’s most exclusive and secretive clubs, allowing Payne to almost whimsically project about what lies ahead while speaking at his annual State of the Masters address.
Intensely private, Augusta National was in an unwanted and uncomfortable global spotlight in the early 2000s because of its long standing men-only membership policy.
After years of mounting pressure, the club finally relented and in 2012 opened its stately doors to women.
Much about Augusta National, however, remains closed with the culture of privacy intact.
Charming and chatty on the eve of the 80th Masters, Payne was loathe to reveal many details, no matter how insignificant, preferring instead to talk about the grander big picture.
“All of our members are very much aware of the responsibility that we have inherited to organize and then execute a golf tournament which we hope and believe is one of the premiere annual sporting events in the world,” said Payne.
“Our founders, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, set incredibly high standards as they continuously, obsessively mandated that our tournament be better every year.
“We do try hard to meet the already very high expectations of the players, our patrons, our millions of fans around the world, and you, the press.
“Whether working to grow the game, or making the tournament better for our many constituents, we at Augusta National Golf Club remain committed, when called upon by our partners, to help, or to create when we happen to have a promising idea.”
Payne took over from Hootie Johnson as club chairman in 2006 and has shepherded Augusta National into a new era, welcoming Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore as the first women members and developing a social media and digital media presence while expanding the Masters global television coverage.
In recent years, the club has displayed progressive vision and long-range planning as it focuses its considerable resources and efforts on growing the game around the world while widening the club’s boundaries at home.
Augusta National continues to buy up property as it expands its borders with ambitious plans that include at new state-of-the-art media center that will connect journalists to the course via an underground tunnel.
With increased property for the course, there are studies underway looking at lengthening holes, including the par-five 13th which concludes the famous three-hole stretch that is widely known as Amen Corner.
“We build these buildings, we stay on top of all technologies, because we are going to be the best,” declared Payne, who oversaw the running of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “Nobody is going to be better than us in that respect.
“So if we can keep that pace and at the same time maintain the friendliness and the welcoming culture that we are known for, then that’s what’s important to preserve, and I think we do it pretty well.”
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes