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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2008

Augusta changes with Payne

AUGUSTA, Ga. - The times, they are a changin' here at Augusta National.

Admit it. When you think of this great golf course, aside from the Masters Tournament that begins this morning, you think of old men, mostly old white men, in green jackets. You think of exclusion. You think of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, the founders, and of old money and privilege, of President Eisenhower and his cottage, of an antebellum clubhouse sitting high on a rise at a place where time has stood still since the first speck of sand dropped through the hourglass.

Even the Masters has a mystique. It's the toughest ticket in sports, albeit the most reasonably priced, with the same patrons, as the fans here are called, buying the same tickets year after year after year. They have a waiting list, but nobody has looked at it for maybe decades. Millions of golf fans for whom price would be little or no object have never set foot on these hallowed grounds and rely on television and, we hope, the written word for everything they know about the rolling, sun-dappled course and its famous bridges and ponds, its azaleas and Rae's Creek and Magnolia Drive.

More books have been written and sold about Augusta National than any other course, and more about the Masters than any other tournament. They are history lessons about one man's vision, about the game and its players, about white-haired galleries and, for years, dark-skinned caddies.

Now, the perception begins to change. By the National's standards, they are throwing the gates wide open here at the 2008 Masters.

If you were seated in front of your TV late yesterday afternoon and it was tuned to ESPN, you were treated to the Masters Par 3 Tournament, which has been held since 1960 and which no one off the premises ever saw before yesterday. Yes, Virginia, the prettiest little par-3 course in the world is right here. Didn't know it, did you?

"Who knows, maybe it will send a message across the world that golf can be played and immensely enjoyed on a 1,000-yard course needing just four or five clubs and taking less than two hours to complete," Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said yesterday.

Starting today, children between the ages of 8 and 18 are being admitted to the Masters free when accompanied by a ticketed patron. Really.

The National will be giving "substantial" money to support golf programs around the world, especially in regions like Asia, to reach potential golfers, especially kids, for the development of amateur golf.

Payne even wants to hear from you, via the Masters, CBS and ESPN Web sites.

"Register and tell us how golf could be improved and promoted around the world," Payne said.

One way, given the era and technology and kids' interests, could be through a Masters video game. Don't run to the store to get in line. But they are thinking about it.

This is radical stuff for a club so steeped in the past, hidden for 51 weeks a year behind hedges and tall fences, a tiny sign and a not-so-tiny guardhouse between it and the hubbub of the modern world out on Washington Road.

But this Augusta National chairman didn't come out of the same cookie cutter as his predecessors. While all have been captains of industry and heirs to fortunes, business moguls and financial titans, only Payne has run an Olympic Games and dealt extensively with the business end of sports, with marketing, and with media.

He understands the history, but recognizes the future. He knows this is the Tiger Woods generation and that there are kids who might not be able to identify Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus. So he put the Par 3 Contest on TV and the 78-year-old Palmer, his shoulders more hunched and his step more weary now, walked to the first tee and punched his drive to within 22 1/2 inches of the cup and thousands roared and maybe, just maybe, some little kid at home knows a little now about the King.

"We believe [with] our history and culture, our obligation is to make efforts to grow the game of golf," Payne said. "The Par 3 on TV? We're hoping kids will be inspired by seeing golf competed and conducted in a fun, family manner. Video games? If it helps us spread the goodness of this game, of golf, then we'll take a hard look at it."

A reporter, knowing how tough the tickets are here, suggested to Payne that the new free admission policy for children might lend itself to "kids" with mustaches trying to sneak onto the grounds with a patron.

"There won't be any bearded 6-year-olds slipping in," Payne responded with a chuckle.

Laughter from the chairman of Augusta National?

Children admitted free?

Expanded TV coverage?

A world-wide initiative to grow the game?

Masters video games?

Yes, times, they are a changin'.



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