Column: Payne’s influence on American sports is undeniable

FILE - In this June 19, 2006, file photo, Billy Payne, who spearheaded Atlanta's successful bid for the 1996 Summer Olympics, speaks during a news conference during the city's 10th Anniversary celebration of the games at Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta. While his name doesn't roll off the tongue of the average fan, nothing more is needed to assure that William Porter Payne will go down as one of the most influential people in modern American sports. (AP Photo/Gene Blythe, file)

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Billy Payne is pondering the next chapter in his life.

No, it won’t be anything close to organizing an Olympics.

Or guiding one of the world’s most famous golf tournaments.

”It could be as simple as going fishing every day,” the 70-year-old Payne said with a chuckle.

Not to worry.

While his name doesn’t roll off the tongue of the average fan, nothing more is needed to assure that William Porter Payne will go down as one of the most influential people in modern American sports.

He almost single-handedly pulled off an upset that ranks right up there with Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson. Even now, more than two decades later, it seems almost surreal that Payne persuaded the International Olympic Committee to give the 100th anniversary edition of its Summer Games to Atlanta , a city with no discernible character outside of Coca-Cola, Waffle House and the eternal gridlock of its freeways.

Not far behind on the improbability scale: As head of Augusta National Golf Club, Payne finally dragged the home of the Masters into the 21st century by opening the doors to female members.

Love him, hate him or wonder who we’re talking about here, there’s no denying those are quite a pair of achievements to have on a resume.

”He was great about taking on challenges and putting himself in a leadership role and then being able to learn as he went,” said Vince Dooley, who was Payne’s coach when he played college football at the University of Georgia in the late 1960s. ”It’s an inspiration of courage to do what he’s been able to do.”

Payne was back at his alma mater on Monday, feted by a host of luminaries during a ceremony to name the school’s new indoor athletic facility in honor of him and his late father, Porter Otis Payne, who also played football for the Bulldogs shortly after World War II.

Six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus was there. So was former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a key ally in Payne’s quixotic quest for the 1996 Olympics.

In some ways, the night was like a life coming full circle.

Dooley, after all, was one of the first people to hear of Payne’s preposterous notion to bring the Olympics to Atlanta.

”I’ll never forget it because he stuttered around it a little bit and then finally I said, `What is on your mind?”’ Dooley recalled. ”He said, `Coach, I have saved enough money. I am going to bring the Olympics to Atlanta, Georgia.’ And I’m thinking at the time, `Atlanta, Georgia? Who knew where Atlanta was, internationally, at the time?'”

Once he landed the games, against all odds, Payne was ridiculed for the way he pulled it off.

Some of the criticism was deserved.

Some of it, not so much.

Payne’s biggest regret will always be the tragic bombing that rocked Centennial Olympic Park midway through the games. There were well-documented issues with transportation, which he’ll (sort of) acknowledge. And he’ll always have to answer for Izzy, the ridiculous, computer-generated mascot .

But Payne will never go along with those detractors who say his Olympics were an over-commercialized, downright tacky spectacle, more comparable to a county fair than one of the world’s greatest sporting events.

”The criticism of the games was very superficial,” he says, as feisty now as he was 22 years ago. ”A couple of transportation issues. The other ones were not even substantive. When you have the audacity to undertake something that big, criticism is a part of it. There’s never been an Olympic games that didn’t have similar criticism. It had no lasting effect on me at all.”

Whether or not his detractors have a point, this much is clear.

Payne managed to pull off the Olympics without saddling Atlanta with billions of dollars in taxpayer debt, which has pretty much been the fate for every Olympic city since then. His were the last games – probably for all time – to be paid for almost entirely with private funding. They may not have been the most elegant of games, but they didn’t break the bank or leave behind a bunch of crumbling, white elephant arenas.

That’s not a bad legacy, either.

”This was an opportunity for us to truly introduce the American South to the rest of the world,” Payne said. ”I think we did that very positively and very effectively.”

While several Olympic venues faded away , the main stadium is still there, serving for 20 years as the baseball home of the Atlanta Braves before it was turned over to Georgia State University’s fledgling football program. Just this past weekend, it hosted a Foo Fighters concert.

But Centennial Olympic Park – which was a brainchild of Payne’s to give Atlanta the focal point it was lacking – is the most lasting landmark of Billy’s Games, now flanked by the mammoth Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, a civil rights museum, the College Football Hall of Fame and a towering Ferris wheel.

A decade after the Olympics, Payne was appointed chairman of Augusta National.

His impact, it turned out, was just as profound . He transformed the look of the venerable club with a series of massive building projects. He launched amateur tournaments in Asia and Latin America to expand the international market. He founded a drive, chip and putt competition for young players.

But, most significantly, he quietly did away with the club’s ban on female members in 2012, which his predecessor, Hootie Johnson, had defiantly proclaimed would never happen ”at the point of a bayonet.”

Next year, for the first time, the Masters will host a women’s amateur tournament .

”All our lady members are great, and I suspect (Fred Ridley, his successor as chairman) will continue the momentum that we have established over the past several years,” Payne said.

The Olympics in Atlanta.

Female members at Augusta National.

Yep, William Porter Payne sure left his mark.

Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul newberry