William Porter “Billy” Payne is stepping down after more than 11 years as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament.
Payne, who turns 70 on Oct. 13, will serve his last day as chairman three days later, with Fred Ridley, the current chairman of the competition committees, becoming the new chairman on Oct. 16. Payne will then become chairman emeritus.
The news was announced on the Masters website and via Twitter.
“The privilege I experienced serving as chairman of Augusta National and the Masters was far greater than I could have ever imagined,” Payne said in a release. “Just as nothing can prepare you for the unique responsibilities and important decisions that come with this position, it is equally impossible to anticipate the many joys and, most importantly, the wonderful friendships that are the ultimate reward of service. This honor, however, is too great for one person to claim as their own for too long a period of time. I retire knowing it is simply the right thing to do – and at the right moment – to open the door and invite someone new to be called upon to lead, bring forth new ideas and craft a new vision that will honor our Founders and serve the game of golf for many years to come.
“I am now proud to call upon my good friend Fred Ridley to lead Augusta National and the Masters to a future that I am confident will hold new promise, while always being faithful to the principles of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts. Fred will be an excellent chairman who will serve with my complete and enthusiastic support.”
An Athens, Ga., native, Payne succeeded former chairman William Woodward “Hootie” Johnson on May 5, 2006. (Johnson died in July at age 86.)
During his tenure as chairman, Payne reinstated a Masters tradition of PGA Tour winners from the previous 12 months earning invites into the tournament, and also made Arnold Palmer an honorary starter in 2007, with Jack Nicklaus (2010) and Gary Player (2012) following.
He helped orchestrate a new Masters Tournament television contract with ESPN in 2007 and that same year added Mercedes-Benz and Rolex as the first two global sponsors to support Masters telecasts and golf development programs outside the U.S. In 2011, Augusta National reached an agreement with EA Sports on an unprecedented video game, “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters,” featuring the Masters name, logo and course. Payne said the video game would help inspire the next generation of golfers.
In 2016, the Masters became the first sporting event in the U.S. to be live-broadcasted in 4K.
Payne also helped launch international amateur competitions, the Asia-Pacific Amateur (in 2009) and Latin America Amateur (in 2015). A Masters exemption is given annually to the winner of each event. And in 2013, the Masters partnered with the USGA and PGA of America to create the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. The national finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt are now held every year at Augusta National. He also helped start the Masters Junior Pass Program.
“I think Billy Payne’s legacy will be, first and foremost, the Drive, Chip and Putt,” Rory McIlroy said in a press conference Wednesday at The Northern Trust. “I think that’s huge. I think having the Asian Amateur champion come and play; having the Latin American Amateur champion come and play. So bringing different parts of the world into the little Augusta bubble, I think that’s been a great thing. But also, I think Augusta has become more open. … It definitely has changed with the ways of the world over the past few years. I think everyone has noticed that.”
Augusta National has received upgrades under Payne, as well. A new media center debuted last year and before that, in 2013, Berckmans Place was created for high-end corporate hospitality. A new practice facility was completed in 2010, a year after free patron parking was significantly expanded.
Most recently, the club purchased nearby land from Augusta Country Club, which many believe will be used to expand Augusta National’s par-5 13th hole.
Most notably, though, Payne announced on Aug. 20, 2012, that Augusta National would end 75 years of all-male membership by naming former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and business executive Darla Moore as the club’s first female members.
“Who we are, and what we aspire to be, was created by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts and all the chairmen who have followed,” Payne said in a Q&A with Golfweek in 2016. “We each try to continue those mandates, those objectives, each, of course, in our own way. Nevertheless, that’s the compelling thing and the driving force, no question about it.”
Said Phil Mickelson, speaking to Golfweek‘s Jeff Babineau: “I wasn’t around, obviously, with (former chairmen) Cliff Roberts and Jack Stephens, but I can’t imagine a chairman doing more for the tournament than he’s done in the last 10 years. I started looking at a lot of the things that he’s done, from a fan’s perspective, making it better from a sponsor’s perspective, a media’s perspective, a player’s perspective … he enhanced the overall experience and brought it on a global basis.
“He created the amateur events, the Asia-Pacific, the Latin America, he brought the Drive, Chip & Putt, then he also brought Berckman’s Place (a VIP hospitality area off the fifth hole), the new driving range, the new media center, the underground tunnel, the new lots, things that, I don’t want to say are overlooked, but are expected. Like, oh, yeah, that was a good idea. He was the man who had the foresight to bring it about. It’s hard to overstate exactly how much he has meant and brought to the Masters.”
Payne played football at the University of Georgia, where he received Bachelor’s and Juris Doctor degrees. He is also the chairman of Centennial Holding Company, an Atlanta-based real estate investment firm, and was president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta Committee of the Olympic Games from 1992 to ’96. He was instrumental in golf’s return to the Olympics in 2016, too.
Ridley, a former USGA president (2004-05), will become the seventh chairman, following Roberts (1933-77), Bill Lane (1977-80), Hord Hardin (1980-91), Jack Stephens (1991-98), Johnson (1998-2006) and Payne. The 65-year-old Ridley will be the first chairman to have played in the Masters. The 1975 U.S. Amateur champion played in the 1976, ’77 and ’78 Masters.
– Jeff Babineau