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Bill Payne replaces Hootie Johnson as Augusta chairman

Billy Payne is taking on another leading role. This time, it's with Augusta National Golf Club instead of the Olympics.

The guiding force behind the 1996 Atlanta Games was anointed Friday to succeed Hootie Johnson, who is stepping down as chairman of the club and that famous tournament it holds every April -- the Masters.

Johnson's departure ends an tumultuous eight-year reign in which he defiantly rejected the idea of female members, ordered two major overhauls of the venerable course and greased the departure of ex-champions who had traditionally been allowed to play the Masters as long as they wanted.

Enter the 58-year-old Payne, who is best known for improbably bringing the Centennial Olympics to Atlanta.

"I know I leave the championship in very capable hands," the 75-year-old Johnson said in a statement. He will formally retire on May 21 and become chairman emeritus, as is the custom in the tradition-rich club.

Payne, who joined Augusta National only nine years ago, will become the sixth chairman in the club's 73-year history and takes on a role that wields great influence -- both inside and outside the gates.

"I know Billy real well, and he'll do a great job," Davis Love III said from Charlotte, N.C., where he was playing in the Wachovia Championship. "He'll be very decisive and he'll make the club fun. I hope I get a green jacket out of Billy Payne."

Johnson has run Augusta National since 1998, defiantly turning back demands that women be allowed to join the men's-only club while ordering the course lengthened twice, by a total of 460 yards, to deal with rapidly improving equipment and longer-hitting players.

The Masters was played last year on a 7,445-yard layout -- the second-longest in major championship history. Johnson shrugged off subtle criticism from Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, club members with 10 green jackets between them.

"Our greatest concern has always been that the course be kept current with the times," said Johnson, who has been a member at Augusta National since 1968.

When it came to the club's membership, however, Johnson was a defiant traditionalist. He felt a private organization was well within its right to deny female members, going so far as to say it would not be forced to act "at the point of bayonet" when women's activist Martha Burk demanded a change in 2002.

Burk, former chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, said Friday that she wants to reopen the issue of female members with Augusta National's new chairman.

"I hope that Billy Payne will exercise stronger leadership and better judgment than Hootie Johnson has," she said. "I would welcome a dialogue."

Former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, who worked closely with Payne on the city's Olympic bid, believes Johnson might have gone along with allowing female members at Augusta National if not for Burk's public campaign.

"Mr. Johnson was very much an old-school Southerner. He was ready to grow, he was ready to change, but he wasn't going to be pushed," Young said. "Let's give him credit for all the good he did, and not try to blame him because he wasn't able to see into the 21st century. That's up to Billy to do."

In the club's statement, Payne didn't signal any major changes. "Hootie did a wonderful job as chairman, and I will endeavor to maintain the customs and traditions of our club as established by (co-founders) Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones."

The club said he would comment further on his new position Monday.

Payne was a football star at the University of Georgia in the 1960s but is best known for bringing the Olympics for Atlanta a decade ago. The city beat out favored Greece, the birthplace of the games, largely because of his zeal and salesmanship.

For instance, Payne famously told the International Olympic Committee that the average July temperature in Atlanta was a moderate 75 degrees, admitting later, "I didn't say what time of day."

"Billy is nothing if not enthusiastic," said Dick Pound, a Canadian IOC member who worked closely with Payne leading up the Atlanta Games. "Southern charm sort of beat out the technical stuff."

Pound recalled Payne being a fervent golfer who unsuccessfully tried to get the sport back on the program at the Atlanta Olympics for the Atlanta Games. The two of them often headed to courses around the city to sort through difficulties that hampered planning for the privately financed games.

As it was, the Atlanta Games were plagued by transportation problems and rampant commercialization, though Payne always points to huge crowds, impressive venues and a flurry of development in downtown Atlanta as the more lasting legacies.

Payne wanted to hold an Olympic golf tournament at Augusta National, getting approval from all the major governing bodies and making arrangements for the club to set up its course for both men and women players. But the proposal failed amid complaints about the club's exclusivity.

A year after the Olympics, Payne became a member at Augusta National. In 2000, he was named chairman of the Masters media committee, signaling he was on the fast track to a top leadership position.

Now, he's got the highest one of all.

"He cares deeply about the club," Pound said. "He was probably no happier at getting the Atlanta Games than he was to learn he had been accepted at Augusta National."

 

 




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