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No changes at Augusta for new chairman

Hootie Johnson attended his first Masters at age 4 in 1935, when Bobby Jones played and Gene Sarazen gave the tournament instant fame with his double eagle from the 15th fairway.

The outgoing Augusta National chairman was proud of a framed picture he kept on a corner table in his office, showing him standing with co-founder Clifford Roberts in their green jacket.

Billy Payne, who takes over as chairman in two weeks, is not that steeped in the history of the club.

But he has the same message.

Payne said Monday his goal was to preserve the traditions of the Augusta National and to embrace whatever changes make the home of the Masters one of the greatest courses in the world.

As for the membership?

Keeping in tradition with other chairman, he said club matter are private -- and that goes for Martha Burk and her crusade to have female members at Augusta National.

"I'm very much aware of her position on all issues as they relate to Augusta National, and I don't really see at this time that any dialogue would be meaningful or helpful," Payne said Monday in a conference call, his first comments since he was selected Friday to replace Johnson as chairman of perhaps the most powerful club in golf.

Burk led a spirited but unsuccessful campaign for Augusta National to invite women to join, and the former head of the National Council of Women's Organizations held out hope that Johnson's retirement might change the club's position.

But when Payne was asked whether females were in the club's future, the answer came out of the past.

"As we've said, and as you've heard many times in the past on membership matters, all of them will be decided by our members, and we have no specific timetable to address that issue," Payne said.

Burk's lawyer, Cyrus Mehri, sent a letter to Payne on her behalf asking for a meeting. Burk said she was disappointed -- but not surprised -- to hear that Payne wasn't interested. Augusta National members closed rank behind Johnson over the all-male membership, even as television sponsors were cut loose for two years at the Masters.

Burk said it sounded as though Payne was "channeling Hootie."

"I thought it would be an opportunity for the club to move forward, and it does not sound like that's the case," Burk said in a telephone interview. "He's had several years to speak out as a member and clearly did not have the courage to do so. As the chair, I thought his backbone might be a little stiffer."

Payne becomes the sixth chairman in the 73-year-history of the club effective May 21, when the course is shut down for the summer.

Unlike Johnson, a member for 30 years before becoming chairman, Payne only joined Augusta National nine years ago after he was finished running the '96 Olympics in Atlanta. Payne is the first chairman who never met either of the club founders; Roberts and Jones had died long before he was invited to join.

"I have read extensively about their lives and I know a lot about their work at Augusta National," Payne said. "And I think these writings have proven and will continue to prove invaluable lessons for me."

Johnson will be chairman emeritus, and Payne said he would continue to lean on him for advice. But he denied having to be on the same page as his predecessor before taking the job.

"My employment was not conditioned on how I responded to any questions," Payne said.

As for the golf course, the only changes for the 2007 Masters is that it might play shorter -- but not by much.

Payne said the tee boxes on Nos. 11 and 15 are the shortest at Augusta National, and they would be expanded 5 to 7 yards so they are the same size as the others -- about 20 yards. That would allow officials to move the tees all the way forward if needed.

"These changes ... will provide us with more flexibility if the holes are playing into a substantial headwind, or if the fairway conditions are soft," Payne said.

He also said grass under the stand of pine trees right of the 11th fairway would be replaced by pine straw, consistent with the rest of the course; and that the fairway would be 3 to 5 yards wider on the right to give medium-length hitters a wider landing area from 280 yards to 300 yards off the tee.

Augusta National was lengthened nearly 500 yards during Johnson's eight years as chairman, but Payne suggested it would be a while before any more holes were drastically changed. He said the minor alterations to the 11th and 15th already were in the works.

"I think we just have it just about right," Payne said.

And just like Johnson, he did not rule out the possibility the Masters could one day require a tournament golf ball if the club felt distance was getting out of control. Payne said he was encouraged by the dialogue among golf's governing bodies and the PGA Tour on limiting advances in equipment and ball technology.

"While we would hope that resolution would come as quickly as possible through that normal process of the governing bodies, we would not take that option off the table in the context of what lengths to which we would go to protect our own course in the future," he said.

The 58-year-old Payne is best known for helping Atlanta get the 1996 Olympics with his zeal and salesmanship. Despite an all-consuming job of running the biggest spectacle in sports, Payne said being chairman of Augusta National and the Masters might be "the most fortunate opportunity of my lifetime."

"I think I begin my tenure with the course and the club in pretty good shape," he said.

 

 




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