Billy Payne brought Augusta National out of the past while respecting tradition

With Billy Payne, left, retiring as the chairman at Augusta National Golf Club, Fred Ridley, right, will take over. Ridley will become the first chairman to have played in the Masters. Scott Halleran/Getty Images for Golfweek

A former college football player who was late to the game of golf, Billy Payne still managed to grasp its history, especially as it related to Augusta National Golf Club, where he made a relatively meteoric rise in stature at a place used to a different pace.

Payne, who retired Wednesday (effective Oct. 16) as the club's chairman, was fond of saying that he strived to maintain the ideals of Augusta National's founders -- great amateur golfer Bobby Jones and Wall Street financier Clifford Roberts -- men he never met but whose legacy he strived to maintain.

And yet, neither Jones nor Roberts would have been remotely familiar with any of the things Payne, 69, accomplished in his 11-year tenure as chairman. Unlike any of his five predecessors, Payne reached far beyond Augusta National's boundaries and made the club and the Masters Tournament a force beyond one week a year in April.

Not only did he oversee the club admitting its first female members -- which had an impact beyond his Augusta National -- but he was behind three major grow-the-game initiatives that the Masters Foundation bankrolls, two amateur events in Asia and Latin America and the Drive, Chip & Putt event that now takes place on the Sunday prior to the Masters at Augusta National.

For the first time other than a Masters champion celebrating in public, a green jacket was seen outside the gates of Augusta. Payne and other Augusta members wore them when they attended the first Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in 2009 and again when the Latin America Amateur Championship was launched in 2015.

Payne knew the power of that jacket, the symbol it represented. It was a first, and it showed his vision for trying to attract people to the game from regions that were not necessarily golf crazy. The hook? A Masters invitation.

Why would Augusta National or Payne care? The club had never undertaken such endeavors, was always secret about its charitable initiatives. Then, within a six-year period, it was putting on two high-profile amateur events and opening its gates to kids to participate on the Augusta grounds.

"We have an obligation," Payne said during a 2015 interview with ESPN.com. "The Masters and Augusta National itself resonates around the world so profoundly that when you are giving money to all these good causes, you are not really giving a piece of yourself.

"But when you give opportunity to these kids, to me it has a better, long-term capability of really getting them committed to the game. We have the time, we have the resources, and we believe it to be completely consistent with what our founders believe."

More likely, it would have been difficult for the founders to comprehend such largesse. Augusta National was not a financial success in the 1930s when it was opened, and there were several times when it risked closing. The Masters Tournament itself did not become a financial boon for decades, with tickets easy to come by in the early years.

Jones and Roberts were from a different time, so it's hard to envision what they would have thought about all the changes that occurred under Payne, not the least of which was the multimillion-dollar purchases of land around the club and the enhancement of the spectator experience to the point where no golf tournament reaps the financial rewards quite like the Masters.

And there was the contentious women's membership issue, one that Payne deftly handled. He faced questions from the moment he took over from previous chairman William "Hootie" Johnson, who famously defied attempts in 2003 to be pressured into admitting female members by halting commercial sponsorship of the Masters to spare the club's partners being protested.

Payne wanted to be deferential to his predecessor but clearly knew the club had to get with the times. When he welcomed former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore as the club's first female members in 2012, he called it a "joyous occasion."

And while he might have put up a good front in adhering to the club's long-held policy that it would not discuss membership issues while sticking to club tradition and protocol, deep down it was likely what Payne wanted all along.

He was simply waiting for the right time, the right place and the right way. Previously, Payne was the head of the Atlanta Olympics. Four years before the Games were played, before he was a member of Augusta National, Payne was part of a press conference at the club in which it was announced golf would return to the Games -- and at Augusta National. That announcement took place in 1992. (Imagine how cool it would have been to see Olympic golf at Augusta National at a time when the club is traditionally closed.)

That blew up due to the club's membership policies, and golf was never played in the 1996 Olympics, a fact Payne ruefully acknowledged as those Games were about to close.

"It's clear the biggest thing missing here is golf at Augusta," Payne said then. "I'm sorry about that. It's my biggest personal disappointment."

And yet admitting women -- there are now three, with IBM CEO Virginia Rometty having joined in 2014 -- may very well be his biggest personal achievement, even if he never acknowledges it as such. While largely symbolic to the outside world, it was an important step to take, given Augusta National's seat at golf's governing table and its efforts to grow the game.

To not have female members looked bad, and we've seen others now fall in line, such as the Royal & Ancient, which voted to admit women for the first time and now requires clubs on The Open rota such as Muirfield, Royal Troon and Royal St. George's -- courses previously without female members -- to have them.

Perhaps above all, Payne was a businessman who brought a keen awareness of what Augusta National could achieve financially. A year after the Atlanta Games, he became an Augusta National member, and less than 10 years after that he was running the club in the autocratic manner that still exists.

That role now goes to Fred Ridley, a Tampa, Florida, attorney who has been the club's chairman of the championship committee for more than a decade. A former United States Golf Association president who won the 1975 U.S. Amateur (and played in three Masters, 1976-78), Ridley, 65, will have seen much of the heavy lifting done by his predecessor.

Payne established the grow-the-game initiatives, invited women to join and expanded Augusta National's footprint and its ability to maximize income. But he never touched the golf course.

The iconic layout grew to more than 7,500 yards prior to Payne taking over, and aside from the occasional tweak, no major changes were made, even though there is now clearly room to do so.

Perhaps that will be Ridley's mandate. He comes from a more traditional golf background, having played the game (he is the last U.S. Amateur champion to never turn pro) at a high level and then working his way up through the USGA's hierarchy.

If he is up for suggestions, maybe Ridley would consider adding some sort of women's event at Augusta National (The Women's Masters?), or perhaps an occasional women's major championship or even the Solheim Cup. Any type of tournament like that would be wildly successful and would further enhance and extend Payne's legacy.

Reached Wednesday afternoon, Ridley politely declined to speak to a reporter, citing the club's protocol. Payne remains chairman until October, after all, and only the chairman speaks on club matters.

You can bet that is one tradition at Augusta National that will never change.