Sports Desk: A Lifetime of Achievement
Accomplished men and women are often the beneficiaries of extraordinary timing, who with uncommon vision, selfless leadership and flawless personal character approach their sundown years with missions accomplished and legacies firmly established.
With Billy Payne, the visionary behind the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and recently retired chair of Augusta National Golf Club, the intersections in his life have been propitious. When it was time for him to play college football, his path crossed that of Vincent Joseph Dooley, the introspective and intellectual football coach who would go on to win the 1980 national championship and six SEC titles at the University of Georgia (UGA). Billy played on two of those SEC title-grabbing teams. This helped imbue him with the notion that the impossible dream could be realized.
If this native Georgian is anything, he is farsighted and audacious. Who else would have had the notion that the 1996 Centennial Olympics, with all odds favoring Athens, Greece, birthplace of the games, could take place in the capital of Georgia – except William Porter Payne, the stouthearted dreamer?
With Atlanta winning the bid, who but this then-unknown native son could lay out proposals that turned corporate heads and connected with the financial wherewithal to make the games a success? The honor of hosting the Olympics was more than headlines, celebration and economics. There were residuals, an economic and cultural flow that continues to benefit his hometown and the state.
“In addition to short-term financial impacts, hosting the 1996 Olympics increased the vitality of the state in many other, less measurable ways,” says Jeffrey M. Humphreys, director of UGA’s Selig Center for Economic Growth. “The most important long-term economic impact of hosting the 1996 Olympics was the acceleration of investment in both the public and private sectors that provided much needed capacity for economic growth and development for decades to come. The Olympics were a catalyst for literally hundreds of capital projects, ranging from improvements at Hartsfield-Jackson [Atlanta International Airport] to MARTA to additional hotels and motels. Hosting the ’96 Olympics raised the long-term growth trajectory of the Atlanta MSA and the state, ushering in a virtuous cycle of economic growth and development that continues to this day.”
Thinking outside the box probably began when Billy was a student-athlete at old Dykes High School in Buckhead, with the ever-present admonition of his father, Porter, who offered mixed praise with every achievement: “Billy, was that the best you could do?”
Billy wanted golf to be included in the 1996 Olympic competition and proposed it to Jack Stephens, then chair at Augusta National. It didn’t work out, but Stephens was so impressed with the author of the proposal that the year after the Olympics, he invited him to become a member of the club.
Nobody campaigns or studies to be the chair of perhaps the most exclusive club in golf. However, Billy’s predecessor Hootie Johnson saw the extraordinary leadership abilities that Payne possessed and tapped him to be his successor.
After settling in and earning the respect of the membership, Billy, determined to maintain the high ideals of founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, began a building program. His goals: Make Augusta National more enjoyable for the membership and better serve Masters patrons during tournament week.
Throughout his tenure, Billy wanted to grow the game of golf. He started the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship for kids during Masters’ week to expose young golfers from all over the world to the glory and grandeur of the Augusta National Golf Club. He admitted women into the club’s membership for the first time in 2012. He was always prepared for any eventuality and can string a dozen sentences together without using the pronoun “I.” That alone makes this Renaissance man an exceptional leader and manager. He retired from the position last October.
He hasn’t confirmed an activity or project for his golden years, but his best friends know that there will be something altruistic to stimulate his creative urges. With his high-energy profile, he will not be content to accept an idle lifestyle that might usher him into an idle mental state, which would be an anathema for him.
As savvy as he has been in bringing about achievement, he may be best at deflecting praise. But praise is inevitable for his overpowering resume. If Porter were still with us, he wouldn’t have to ask Billy if he could have done better.