Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club for the past 11 years and the man who brought women members into the exclusive club that hosts the Masters, has announced his retirement.
Payne, who turns 70 in October, will be succeeded by Fred Ridley, 65, a former U.S. Amateur champion and U.S. Golf Association president who has served as chair of Augusta National’s competition committee. The change becomes effective Oct. 16, although for all intents and purposes, Ridley is now in charge, taking over a vital leadership role in golf at a time of transition and challenge for the game throughout the world.
Payne, who has been dealing with back issues for many years and underwent major back surgery early in 2016, is not leaving due to health reasons, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who spoke with USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Payne took the all-encompassing job of Augusta National chairman on May 21, 2006, thinking he would serve for about seven years, the person said, and the time simply had come for him to leave that role. Payne, who was the sixth chairman in the 84-year history of the club, remains a member of Augusta National and becomes chairman emeritus.
Payne’s mark on Augusta National has been enormous, but no action he took will be remembered longer than his announcement in August 2012 inviting former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and business executive Darla Moore to become the club’s first two female members. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty joined a couple of years later.
It was no surprise that the man who ran the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta — an event known as the “Women’s Olympics” for the tremendous success of U.S. women in soccer, softball, basketball, gymnastics and swimming, among others — would be the one to bring staid, exclusionary Augusta National into the 21st century.
In fact, in the early 1990s, as the young leader of the upcoming Atlanta Olympics, Payne wanted to make golf an Olympic sport, with this kicker: staging the competition at Augusta National. He also was going to demand that the competition include women.
At the time he was not a member of the club, and he knew that women were not allowed to be members, but his idea was to show those old men of Augusta National what women could do.
As things turned out, the idea died a quick death because the Olympic Games could not hold any events at a place that discriminated against women, but Payne was on his way.
Upon entering the chairman’s role in 2006, Payne began a delicate dance balancing the club’s substantial old guard and its love of tradition with the increasingly pressing need to modernize not only Augusta National, but the game of golf itself. He consistently spoke out about opening the game to more corners of the world, and, in 2014, welcomed a new event — the Drive, Chip and Putt junior competition — to Augusta National, opening the venerable course to girls and boys from ages 7-15 for the finals on the Sunday before Masters week.
At times, Payne faced intense criticism from members of the news media in the several years before he brought in women members, but he celebrated with his detractors on August 20, 2012, when he took the unprecedented step of publicly announcing the names of the two new members at the intensely private club.
“These accomplished women share our passion for the game of golf and both are well known and respected by our membership,” Payne said that day. “It will be a proud moment when we present Condoleezza and Darla their green jackets when the Club opens this fall.”
He added this important coda, for that day and very likely for his legacy as well: “This is a significant and positive time in our club’s history.”
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