HUGGAN’S AL­LEY: JOHH HUGGAN

Golf Australia - - CONTENTS - BY JOHN HUGGAN | GOLF AUS­TRALIA COLUM­NIST AT L ARGE

PRE­DICTABLY, the seem­ingly end­less flurry of tributes were all-but unan­i­mous in their ob­se­quious­ness. When Wil­liam Porter Payne an­nounced his de­ci­sion to step down as chair­man of the Au­gusta Na­tional Golf Club, his 11-year ten­ure at the home of the Masters Tour­na­ment wasn’t quite likened to the sort of states­man­ship and wis­dom dis­played by, say, Nel­son Man­dela, Win­ston Churchill, or Abra­ham Lin­coln. But many came mighty close within the un­be­com­ing stam­pede to hail this sup­pos­edly great leader.

Con­versely, such was the scope of the power and in­flu­ence wielded by the preen­ing head of the green-jack­eted mem­ber­ship, few were will­ing to em­pha­sise any of Payne’s less-fetch­ing foibles.

First though, a sin­cere ac­knowl­edge­ment. It would be churl­ish in­deed not to con­cede the pos­i­tive as­pects of “mis­ter chair­man’s” time be­hind the armed-guarded gates that em­pha­sise so heavy-hand­edly the ex­clu­siv­ity of the high­end club – per­haps the least at­trac­tive as­pect of golf, Au­gusta Na­tional-style. Su­per­fi­cially at least, Payne has at­tempted to “grow the game,” even if one of his big­gest ini­tia­tives has a “not in my back yard” air about it.

The Drive, Chip and Putt is a com­pe­ti­tion that brings hordes of chil­dren be­tween the ages of 7-15 to Au­gusta the week­end be­fore the Masters. Great. But left un­spo­ken is that, one day af­ter the year’s first ma­jor, those same chil­dren wouldn’t be al­lowed in­side the afore­men­tioned gates. Heaven for­bid. Equally, it goes with­out say­ing that the ju­nior mem­ber­ship at ANGC is hold­ing rel­a­tively steady at zero. Grow the game? By all means, just don’t do it here y’all.

There have been other ex­am­ples of the Payne hypocrisy. Per­haps most egre­gious was his pub­lic con­dem­na­tion of Tiger Woods in the wake of the ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties that put an end to the young black man’s mar­riage. And yet, upon the sad death of Arnold Palmer, Payne had noth­ing but glow­ing praise for the white man who was maybe the most im­por­tant cat­a­lyst in the growth of the game he claims to hold so dear. In many ways, that is ex­actly as it should be. Palmer was a gen­uinely great golfer, an iconic fig­ure and a fine man by all ac­counts. But his off-course life­style was, at least in one re­spect, strik­ingly sim­i­lar to that of Woods.

Still, much has changed in the decade-anda-bit since the res­ig­na­tion of the pre­vi­ous chair­man, “Hootie” John­son. For­get­ting for a mo­ment how dif­fi­cult it is to take se­ri­ously any­one named Hootie, Payne has done a great job tak­ing the ANGC into the 21st cen­tury in terms of so­cial me­dia, dig­i­tal of­fer­ings and new tech­nol­ogy.

Phys­i­cally too, the club ap­pears dif­fer­ent, even if there is some­thing of a “Dis­ney­land” look to many of the new build­ings, in­clud­ing the sparkly new me­dia cen­tre lo­cated in the far cor­ner of ANGC’s ever-ex­pand­ing prop­erty. Pro­vid­ing a glimpse into the unimag­in­able wealth avail­able to the club, what used to be a thriv­ing neigh­bour­hood across Ber­ck­mans Road sits all but de­serted and is now a car park used one week a year. And Ber­ck­mans Road? That has been moved too.

To be fair too, the ‘toon­amint’ has also been trans­formed un­der Payne’s watch. Gone is the drudgery that placed green jack­ets on the shoul­ders of Zach John­son and Trevor Im­mel­man, re­placed by crash-bang­wal­lop fin­ishes that fea­ture way more birdies than bo­geys. Masters Sun­day is back as one of the game’s most ea­gerly-an­tic­i­pated rounds. Even then, how­ever, there are slight mis­giv­ings. Should golf – at its best a game with an in­her­ent ran­dom­ness at its core – be so con­trolled and con­trived? Just ask­ing.

As for the golf course, in con­trast to his pre­de­ces­sor, Payne has largely opted out of too much change. Which isn’t ex­actly a good thing. By way of ex­am­ple, the hugely in­ap­pro­pri­ate band of trees along the right side of the 11th fair­way con­tin­ues to sur­vive, as does the tim­ber right of the 17th. The back tee at the par-4 7th re­mains, leav­ing the world’s best play­ers to hit mid-irons to a green de­signed to be aimed at with wedge in hand.

Speak­ing of trees, men­tion must be made of the Monty Python-like sor­row Payne ex­pressed over the demise of the so-called “Eisen­hower Tree” that dom­i­nated the left side of the penul­ti­mate fair­way. Struck down by a wild storm in Fe­bru­ary 2014, the loblolly pine was far­ci­cally feted by the chair­man as if it had some­how con­trib­uted to world peace, the abo­li­tion of famine and the cur­ing of can­cer. You had to be there.

Any­way, Payne will of­fi­cially move into the realm of “chair­man emer­i­tus” on Oc­to­ber 16th this year. Some may mourn his pass­ing. Oth­ers may ad­mire the man and his char­ac­ter. But this writer is not one of those. Bye-bye Billy.

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