Who didn't Billy Payne talk to leading up to this year's Masters?
First, Tim Carroll in the Wall Street Journal poses some great questions to the new chairman (thanks to reader John for the link).
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Is it fair that your predecessor, Hootie Johnson, is going to be known forever as the man who wouldn't let women into Augusta National?
MR. PAYNE: No, I don't think so. I'm thinking he's going to be remembered principally as a man who took on the very significant challenges to our wonderful golf course caused by the advances in distance that were a consequence of some advances in technology. He took some very bold steps in order to ensure that our course kept its competitive nature, notwithstanding the fact that the average driving distance since the founding of our tournament is up some 70 yards.
Notice Mr. Payne never says anything about the guys being better athletes. Get this man the talking points!
WSJ: One of the changes outside Augusta National is technology. For a long time, it was the ball. Augusta National threatened to impose a tournament ball, something that Ohio did for some of its statewide events. Lately, the USGA and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews seem to be focusing on club-face grooves. Do you feel as if you're in some sort of nuclear arms race against the ball and club makers? Is an Augusta ball still a possibility? How about Augusta clubs?
MR. PAYNE: We will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the competitiveness of our golf course against the challenges of these great and very talented players and against equipment changes which allow them to hit the ball farther and to spin the ball more. As a consequence, I think we remain diligent as we measure and look at those kinds of increases and those kinds of challenges to our course. But last year, as you recall, one of the tour's longest hitters was the winner [Phil Mickelson], and a close second was one of the tour's shortest hitters in Tim Clark. So we felt that that was demonstrative that the course was a fair challenge to players of all lengths. So, we think we got it about right now....
We are encouraged by the fact that the regulatory governing bodies, both the Tour and the USGA and R&A, are themselves looking at ways to either diminish the increases in length and/or to affect the spin of the ball. All of which has an indirect consequence of making folks not want to just hit it as far as they can whether or not it goes into the rough.
So again I ask. If the guys are spinning it more out of the rough than the fairway, as the USGA is claiming, then why not eliminate the rough?
Loved this question from Carroll:
WSJ: Another change this year is that Fred Ridley, a longtime USGA official, is setting up the golf course for the first time. In the past, Sunday hole locations have seemed to be in spots where amazing things could happen. Take the 16th hole: There were two holes-in-one in 2004 and Tiger Woods's jaw-dropping chip-in for birdie two years ago when he used the green's ridge as a backboard. The USGA seems to have different thoughts on how to set up a golf course. As viewers, can we expect to see the Sunday fireworks continue?
MR. PAYNE: It would be fair to say that the imprimatur you will see imprinted on the golf course, the final Sunday and especially on the second nine, will be as you have seen it traditionally at Augusta. We hope [the setup] will allow those fireworks that you refer to continue. Because that's what people want to see. I think that's the way the players prefer it as well.
In the LA Times, Thomas Bonk profiles Payne and offers this:
Payne said Johnson could not have done a better job.
"He is a dear friend of mine and I would rate his performance a 10. I thought he faced the issue of technology threatening our course and dealt with it decisively, properly and in the best interests of our tournament.
"Equally as important, he was much aware of the importance of Augusta National and the preservations of our traditions and its place in the game of golf."
A 10? I know, I know, he has to say this stuff.
The work on the course for this year is complete, with only minor changes, including adding to the front of the 11th and 15th tees and changing the cut line on the right side of the 11th fairway.
"Hopefully, for the duration of my turn, we would not need to resort to any substantive changes," Payne said.
"Given the way the relative field competed … absent continued technological advances, it seems to me we should have it right for quite a while. I will caveat that by saying we don't take any option off the table when it comes to preserving the integrity of this course."
I like that caveat, assuming Payne recognizes that the rough and tree planting are impacting the integrity of the Jones/MacKenzie vision.