At 11 am Wednesday morning, Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne held the annual State of the Masters press conference. He was joined by Craig Heatley, Masters Media Committee Chairman, and Fred Ridley, Masters Competition Chairman. Along with re-affirming the mission of the Masters as the “attempt to showcase this wonderful game by providing the world’s best players a remarkably beautiful venue which fairly tests their skills,” Payne and company provided the following newsworthy items and notes.
- Payne stated the Masters would not include a walking rules official for every group, as done at other Majors. In spite of the controversy caused by Tiger Woods being penalized two shots for a rules infraction after he signed his scorecard, Payne said, “I think that we made the right decision. I believe that the golf world has affirmed that. I know that some of you disagree with the decision.” In the decision not to have a walking official, Payne added: “We have approximately 60 officials on the course, significantly more than any other tournament… So we think the way do it is pretty good, which is not to say that we would never consider a change. But we kind of like the way we do it now.” The upside here? Maybe more players will rely upon themselves, their caddies and their fellow competitors to know the rules. And it might speed up the round. Ok, probably not.
- Besides the rules flap last year, the matter of the Masters not allowing for more daylight hours in event of a longer playoff scenario was raised by me in a one-on-one query with Ridley. Although changes in Sunday starting times can be altered due to weather factors, the last pairing on Sunday will continue to go off at 3 pm. Ridley told me last year that if necessary, the Masters had plans for a Monday finish in case of a playoff being called due to darkness. That situation was a real possibility last year with Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera finishing in the twilight on the 10th green. “We probably could have played one more hole last year.” said Ridley today. “It would have been close but we think we could have made it.” So here’s wishing and hoping (again) a Masters playoff doesn’t go beyond two holes. I can’t believe Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, if posed with a similar same day playoff scenario, wouldn’t build in at least another thirty or sixty minutes before the last tee-time. Oops, did I say 60 Minutes? That’s the culprit behind this resistance to earlier starting times on Sunday: television.
- When asked what was the initial genesis of the wildly successful Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals, Payne again took a humble and understated approach. Payne said, in part: “As we began to discuss a multitude of ideas, this one rose to the surface and was immediately embraced by everybody, and I don’t remember who the exact author of the sentence was, but it was clear from the beginning that this was a good idea and let’s see if we can take it further.” But then Heatley spilled the beans but saying, “He’s (Payne) being modest.” If not for Payne’s enthusiasm and leadership for the idea, this wonderful initiative wouldn’t have happened at the Masters.
- “Skirting” controversy—Payne wasn’t going to be dragged into the debate about the issue of the R & A admitting a female member. When asked about the pending R & A vote on the matter, Payne deftly said, “Well, I’m proud to be a member of the R&A and I bet you can guess how I’m going to vote (laughter). Other than that, I would respect their process, their requirement to conduct a vote, and so the process will culminate in a decision, and as I’ve said, I know where one vote is going to be cast (smiling).” Augusta National member Condoleezza Rice, a former Secretary of State, would be proud of Payne’s diplomatic skills.
- Ever constant improvement: Payne announced a major improvement to the patron entrance and hospitality area at Gate 9, close to the fifth hole. Now this area is officially called the “South Village” with its traditional array of services like concessions, restrooms and merchandising. However the area, according to Payne, is now “embracing the architectural style of the Augusta look, which we believe our Patrons expect and appreciate.” What other tournament or enterprise continues to invest such huge sums for the benefit of their customers, er patrons, for just one week of the year?
- Oddest query—Posed to him via a translator for a golf writer from China, Payne was asked about the “very good tradition” of the nine special and reserved parking spaces assigned to golf journalists who have received the Masters Major Achievement Award. Adding: “I think this could be a good story for the Chinese community.” My immediate thought when hearing this from out-of-left-field question: Man, parking must be a bitch in Shanghai. Sorry.