HUGGAN’S ALLEY: JOHH HUGGAN
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.