Payne takes over at Augusta National

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ATLANTA – Augusta National announced Friday that Hootie Johnson is stepping down as chairman on May 21, moving into an emeritus role.

Payne will become the sixth chairman in the club’s 73-year history and run one of golf’s most hallowed events – the first of the four majors, played every April amid blazing azaleas and towering pine trees.

“I know I leave the championship in very capable hands,” the 75-year-old Johnson said in a statement.

He has run Augusta National since 1998, defiantly turning back demands that women be allowed to join the men’s-only club while ordering up two major overhauls of the historic course 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 and 460 yards longer than it was when Johnson took over.

“It’s kind of like being president,” said Davis Love III from Charlotte, N.C., where he was playing in the Wachovia Championship. “No matter what you do, half the people are going to think you did it wrong.”

Payne was a football star at the University of Georgia in the 1960s but is best known for leading Atlanta’s longshot bid for the 1996 Centennial Games. The city beat out favored Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics, largely because of Payne’s zeal and salesmanship.

For instance, he 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 in the Olympics. The two of them often headed to courses around the city to sort through difficulties that hampered planning for the privately financed games.

A year after the Olympics, Payne became a member at Augusta National. Now 58, he has run the Masters media committee since 2000.

“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.”

In the club’s statement, Payne said, “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.”

He was not available for further comment. The club said he would discuss his new position on Monday.

Martha Burk, who led the fight to open the club’s membership to women, wants to reopen the issue with Augusta National’s new chairman.

“I hope that Billy Payne will exercise stronger leadership and better judgment than Hootie Johnson has,” said Burk, former chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations. “I would welcome a dialogue.”

Johnson took a high-profile stand against female membership. Responding to a letter from Burk in 2002, he angrily wrote that Augusta National would not be forced to act “at the point of a bayonet” – even though the club quietly admitted several black members after being linked to the debate over all-white clubs in the early 1990s.

While Johnson refused to alter the look of Augusta National’s membership, he had no such qualms when it came to the course.

He ordered the biggest changes in club history before the 2002 Masters, adding 305 yards in length. It grew by another 155 yards this year and trailed only the 7,514-yard PGA Championship at Whistling Straits as the longest in major championship history.

“Our greatest concern has always been that the course be kept current with the times,” Johnson said, shrugging off subtle criticism from Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, club members with 10 green jackets between them.

Payne inherits a role that wields great power and influence – both inside and outside the gates of Augusta National.

“It seems to be a one-man show,” golfer Jim Furyk said. “They all seem to make the decisions and stick by them through thick and thin.”

Payne’s Olympics were plagued by transportation problems and rampant commercialization, though he always pointed to huge crowds, impressive venues and a flurry of development in downtown Atlanta as the more lasting legacies.

He wanted to bring back golf as an Olympic sport in 1996, arranging for both men and women to play at Augusta National. But the proposal failed.

Former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young 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.”

Johnson, a South Carolina native and member of the club since 1968, stepped down less than a week after 77-year-old Will Nicholson retired as chairman of the competition and rules committee. He was replaced by 53-year-old Fred Ridley, former president of the U.S. Golf Association.

AP-ES-05-05-06 1800EDT

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