Billy Payne’s annual meeting with the media lacked the controversy of past years. Instead of being asked when Augusta National Golf Club would admit female members, the club's chairman was questioned Wednesday about the ANGC’s position on banning smoking (he didn't offer an opinion). Without any dose of controversy, Payne was asked whether he missed it. It was evident he did not.
Payne began with prepared remarks that lasted more than 10 minutes on an array of topics. Here are 5 Things to take from Payne's news conference on the eve of the 77th Masters.
1. FEMALE MEMBERSHIP AT AUGUSTA: Of particular interest were his comments on the club’s two female members.
“Now before go any further, and because I think you’re interested, we would like to reaffirm the enthusiasm we expressed last August when we announced that Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore had become members of Augusta National Golf Club,” he said. “I hope the experience for Condi and Darla as members of our club has been every bit as rewarding and enjoyable for them over the last eight months as it has been for their fellow members. It’s just awesome.”
2. NOT TAKING SIDES ON ANCHORING: Payne was far more diplomatic when addressing some of the hot-button topics in golf. He declined to express an opinion on the proposed anchoring ban given that the USGA and R&A have yet to announce a decision following the open-comment period. Saying Augusta is a club that stages a tournament and not a governing body, Payne would only offer this: “We hope and believe that they can reach common ground so that golf will continue under one set of rules,” he said.
When a later question asked for a clarification, Payne simply reiterated his stance and fielded another question.
3. MORE WINNERS AT MASTERS: Payne did announce a few changes to the qualifications for the Masters, beginning in 2014. The six events that formerly made up “the Fall Series” have been given equal billing in the Tour’s new wraparound schedule and its winners will now earn an automatic berth into the Masters. Augusta National returned to its practice of inviting Tour winners the year after the FedEx Cup began in 2007.
“All of us take great pride and pleasure in seeing a tournament winner beam with pride and excitement knowing that his victory had earned him an invitation to the Masters,” Payne said.
Frys.com Open president Duke Butler called the announcement “a great day for the season-opening events,” and added, “I’m certain we’ll send a great champion to the Masters.”
To maintain the intimacy of the field, Augusta National amended three existing criteria.
• Now the top 12 finishers at the Masters will earn a spot in the field the following year, instead of top 16.
• Same thing for the top 4 finishers at the U.S. Open, instead of the top 8 (which is consistent with the British Open and PGA Championship).
• Augusta National also is eliminating the exemption through which the top 30 players on the PGA Tour money list earned a spot in the Masters.
4. CHANGE IN MASTERS CUT LINE: One change goes into effect for this week’s Masters: an increase in the number of competitors that make the cut to top 50 and ties, and anyone within 10 shots of the lead. The cut line had previously been set at top 44 and ties.
5. TARGETING MORE AMATEUR GROWTH: Payne also expressed his pleasure with the success of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, and hinted at expanding its involvement in amateur golf into other parts of the world. Payne said the industry must continue to address the issue of the sport’s declining participation among youth, and Augusta National is attempting to play its role.
“What we’ve done is do what we’re supposed to do, and that is to be a beacon in the world of golf and to do our best to influence others to want to be a part of it,” he said.