H. Johnson steps down at Augusta

Payne in

May 06, 2006

Hootie Johnson did everything but stand in the gates of Magnolia Lane when it came to letting in women members at Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club. Then again, he was hardly a preservationist on all matters.

Just look at how much the course has changed.

Now, after an eight-year reign that was dominated by those two major issues, Johnson is handing over the home of the Masters to Billy Payne, who improbably brought the Olympics to Atlanta a decade ago.

Augusta National announced yesterday that Johnson is stepping down as chairman May 21, moving into an emeritus role.

Payne will become the sixth chairman in the club's 73-year history and run one of golf's most hallowed events - the first of the four majors, played every April amid blazing azaleas and towering pine trees.

"I know I leave the championship in very capable hands," Johnson, 75, said in a statement.

He has run Augusta National since 1998, defiantly turning back demands that women be allowed to join the men's-only club while ordering up two major overhauls of the historic course to deal with rapidly improving equipment and longer-hitting players.

The Masters was played last year on a 7,445-yard layout - the second-longest in major championship history and 460 yards longer than it was when Johnson took over.

"It's kind of like being president," said Davis Love III from Charlotte, N.C., where he was playing in the Wachovia Championship. "No matter what you do, half the people are going to think you did it wrong."

Payne was a football star at the University of Georgia in the 1960s but is best known for leading Atlanta's long-shot bid for the 1996 Centennial Games. The city beat out favored Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics, largely because of Payne's zeal and salesmanship.

A year after the Olympics, Payne became a member at Augusta National. Now 58, he has run the Masters media committee since 2000.

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