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Payne stepping down as Augusta National chairman

Published: Wednesday, August 23, 2017 @ 11:02 AM
Updated: Wednesday, August 23, 2017 @ 2:12 PM

Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Billy Payne speaks at his annual press conference, this before the 2013 Masters.
Phil Skinner/pskinner@ajc.com
Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Billy Payne speaks at his annual press conference, this before the 2013 Masters.(Phil Skinner/pskinner@ajc.com)

Having drawn the Masters a map to the 21st century and eventually holding open the door for the first women members at Augusta National, Billy Payne announced Wednesday he was abdicating his chairmanship of America’s most famous and influential golf club.

Payne, who turns 70 in October, let it be known Wednesday that 11 years was enough leading an elite green-jacketed membership and serving as the single voice speaking for Augusta National and its florid April tournament. He retires as of Oct. 16 as the club’s sixth chairman, a line that dates to 1931 and co-founder Clifford Roberts.

Meet Fred Ridley, new Augusta National chairman

Of his relatively lengthy tenure – only Roberts held the position longer – Payne told the AJC in advance of Wednesday’s announcement: “I wouldn’t grade myself other than to say I tried my best. I hope that people, principally the other members, are proud of what we were able to accomplish while I was chairman.”

Succeeding as the overseer of the home of the Masters will be 65-year-old Fred Ridley, a Florida real estate attorney and former U.S. Amateur champion who most recently has served as head of the tournament’s competition committee. Payne, the one-time Georgia Bulldogs lineman, is giving way to a one-time Florida Gators golfer.

Ridley is the reason, Payne said, that he felt now was the time to pass the torch (this one of the non-Olympic variety). 

“When I became chairman,” Payne said, “my predecessor Hootie Johnson said the most important thing you’ll ever do is decide who will succeed you.

“I had to get my feet wet and make a few of my own mistakes first before I could identify the qualities I was looking for. Recently, I became convinced Fred Ridley has all of those qualities and then some. He’s immensely respected by the membership – loved by the membership. He’s crazy intelligent. Just the perfect guy. I hope history will say that in my most important responsibility I made a good decision. I know I did.”

Atlanta’s Payne, of course, had a life before moving into the Augusta National chairmanship in 2006. Most notably, he was the force behind bringing the 1996 Olympics to his hometown. He lobbied unsuccessfully at the time to include golf in the Olympic program, and to stage it at Augusta National. Controversy over the club’s exclusionary membership scotched the idea.

A year after the Olympics, Payne was brought into the small circle of Augusta National membership. Just nine years later, he was running the joint. 

Billy Payne remembers the night Muhammad Ali lit up Atlanta during 1996 Olympics

As chairman, Payne had the kind of authority lacking in many of life’s other pursuits. No one outranks the chairman on the august property off Washington Road. Not the richest of members – like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Nor the most impressively titled – like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Nor even Hall of Famers – like former Pittsburgh receiver Lynn Swann.

The Augusta National chairman is guardian of what former PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem once called the "strongest brand" in golf. In his care is the season’s first of golf’s majors, the one treated as a “tradition unlike any other” by its broadcast partners and the one that defines springtime in Georgia.

While Payne’s reign encompasses a wide range of changes, from pricey upgrades to the Augusta National practice facility and its media headquarters to reaching beyond the club’s high green border to spark grow-the-game initiatives in Asia and Latin America, it was the 2012 announcement that two women were joining the club that is bound to frame his legacy. 

Photos: Billy Payne’s tenure at Augusta National

Payne prefers to think that development was in the works even before he arrived – and Rice and Darla Moore did not come on board until Payne’s sixth year as chairman. “It happened during our tenure, but no member becomes a member here at the spur of the moment,” he said. “It takes time and consideration. Any member you see coming has been on the list to become a member for a long time. There are no exceptions to that, including the ladies.”

Although he did appear to leave a verbal stickie note for the next guy in his office when he added, “And you will see more (women members).” There were three at last count.

Payne’s may have been Augusta National’s most ambitious era. Throughout, he tried to keep one foot in the Masters’ hidebound past and the other on the accelerator.

The footprint of the club expanded on two fronts, as it bought up land on one side for a massive free parking area and, recently, a piece of Augusta Country Club on another for possible future expansion of the iconic Amen Corner.

Payne’s evangelistic quest to grow golf was reflected in the children who showed up the Sunday of Masters week to compete in a drive, chip and putt championship and those others who witnessed the Masters itself thanks to a junior pass program. Globally, in partnership with golf’s ruling bodies, the club birthed championships in Asia and Latin America that funneled new players to the Masters. 

Billy Payne: His vision changed Atlanta history

His business sense was evident with the opening of an opulent hospitality area, Berckman’s Place, beyond the fifth hole. 

One Augusta National member, speaking on background as is required of all but the chairman, said Payne’s greatest legacy was his ability to galvanize the membership behind a common vision. Even those who may have resisted some change would be proudly adopting it like it was their own idea by the time it was in place, the member noted. 

For the 2018 Masters, Payne anticipates being able to actually venture out on the course and witness some live golf – an impossibility for a chairman obsessed with the day-to-day details in April. “I’m really looking forward to enjoying it with my family. It’s going to be fun,” he said.

The emotion currently in play, Payne said, was gratitude.

“(The time as chairman) has given me an abundance of friends,” he said. “I now proudly call all of my best friends those people who share with me the privilege of wearing the green jacket. This is a very close-knit family. There is a lot of love that passes around here. And I’ve certainly been a beneficiary of that and I’m exceeding grateful for it.”

Tiger Woods opens with a 69 in his return to competitive golf

Published: Thursday, November 30, 2017 @ 5:01 PM

Justin Thomas (left) and Tiger Woods shake hands after finishing on the 18th green during the first round of the Hero World Challenge at Albany, Bahamas on November 30, 2017 in Nassau, Bahamas.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Justin Thomas (left) and Tiger Woods shake hands after finishing on the 18th green during the first round of the Hero World Challenge at Albany, Bahamas on November 30, 2017 in Nassau, Bahamas. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)(Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Tiger Woods made his return to golf Thursday at the Hero World Challenge, his first competitive event in 10 months.

Woods finished with a 69, three off the lead and three under par. His first drive went 30 yards past Justin Thomas’.


After registering a par or birdie on the first eight holes, Woods missed a putt to the left for a bogey on hole 9 (par 5). He had three birdies in the next five, including consecutive on hole 13 and 14 that pulled him to within one of the lead.


Both Woods’ bogies came on par 5s, but his drives and putting were significantly better than past comeback attempts.

Woods said he thought the round went very well.


 

Meet Fred Ridley, the new Augusta National chairman 

Published: Wednesday, August 23, 2017 @ 11:02 AM

Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne, left, confers with his eventual successor Fred Ridley during the 2016 Masters.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images for Golfweek
Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne, left, confers with his eventual successor Fred Ridley during the 2016 Masters.(Scott Halleran/Getty Images for Golfweek)

Augusta National will have its first chairman who knows the Masters inside and out, as both a competitor and longtime club member.

Fred Ridley, set to become the club’s seventh chairman in October with the departure of Billy Payne, will be the first of these caretakers of the Masters to have played in the tournament. Three times, actually.

Billy Payne stepping down as chairman of Augusta National

Initially gaining entry as the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion, Ridley would crack the Masters field in 1976, ’77 and ’78. He missed the cut all three times.

As the Amateur champ, Ridley first-ever round in ’76 would rank as fairly memorable, as he was paired with the Masters winner from the previous year. That was Jack Nicklaus. Tough to get a better partner than that. For the record, Ridley shot a 77 that day. 

Jack Nicklaus, left, and Fred Ridley stride down the 14th fairway during the 1976 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. (Photo from Augusta National Golf Club)(Augusta National/Augusta National/Getty Images)

While a career playing golf was not in his future, Ridley rebounded nicely. The Lakeland, Fla.-born Ridley, 65, comes to Augusta National chairmanship as a partner in the Tampa firm of Foley & Lardner, specializing in real estate law. He is a graduate of Florida and the Stetson college of law.

As Payne’s hand-picked successor, Ridley not surprisingly received the highest kind of endorsement from the outgoing chairman.

“Any chairman of Augusta, following our founders, is simply the custodian of all the traditions, the protocol, the organization, the passion that they developed when they began the club. It’s an honor that no one should claim as permanent,” Payne told the AJC before his retirement announcement, explaining the timing of his departure.

It was time, Payne said, to weigh retirement, “when the right person surfaces that I think can carry us for the next several years consistent with (the founders’) vision.”

“I think Fred is the perfect person.”

Ridley’s golfing affiliations ran deep long after he stopped competing. He was twice a non-playing Walker Cup captain (having played in 1977). In 2004-05, Ridley served as president of the United States Golf Association. In 2006, he received the PGA of America’s Distinguished Service Award.

Winning the U.S. Amateur was the highlight of his golfing resume, as much for the quality of those he beat along the way in match play as for the title itself. On the path to the title, Ridley eliminated future PGA Tour players Curtis Strange, Andy Bean and Keith Fergus.

As to whether the incoming chairman could have wiped up the course with any of his predecessors Payne smiled and said, “I’m certain of that.” 

“(Ridley’s) golf history is well-documented. That’s certainly important. But being chairman is a lot more than that,” Payne said. “I knew he had the other qualities. What I tried to identify was how the members would coalesce around him and his leadership as they have for me.”

One longtime member who knows both men very well remarked that the transition from Payne to Ridley should be seamless, and that their visions for the club and the Masters were quite similar.

For the past 10 years at Augusta National, Ridley has served as chairman of the competition committee, a job dealing with the sometimes-thorny topics of rules interpretation and course setup. Usually, the less the person in that position is in the news, the better.

Case in point: The Great Tiger Woods Drop Controversy of 2013.

Ridley was the man forced to explain how the four-time Masters champion was assessed a two-stroke penalty hours after his second round was finished, following a tip from a TV viewer that Woods took an improper drop. 

The incident took place on No. 15 and involved a bizarre series of events begun when his shot to the green ricocheted off the flagstick back into the creek guarding the front of the green. No penalty was assessed at the time as Woods dropped behind his original spot. 

Woods later seem to confirm the tipster’s claim when he told ESPN in a taped interview that he wanted to drop a couple yards behind the original spot in order to try a slightly different shot into the green. It was quite the dust-up the following morning.      

Ridley occupies a somewhat more consistently shining spotlight now.

Who is Angela Akins, Sergio Garcia’s wife?

Published: Sunday, April 09, 2017 @ 10:21 PM
Updated: Tuesday, August 01, 2017 @ 12:33 PM

Who Is Sergio Garcia’s Fiancé, Angela Akins?

As Sergio Garcia took his first major title by winning the Masters, he was cheered on by then-fiancee Angela Akins. Judging from interviews given by Akins and information in the public record, the 31-year-old has lived an interesting life that, like her fiance’s, has had golf in a central role.

» RELATED: Sergio Garcia gives nod to Seve Ballesteros in Masters win

Who is she?

Angela Akins is a reporter for the Golf Channel. 

Where is she from?

Akins is from Marble Falls, Texas. 

Is Akins a golfer? 

Definitely yes. Akins transferred from Texas Christian University to the University of Texas, where she played for the UT women’s golf team. 

Photos: Who is Angela Akins, Sergio Garcia’s fiancee?

“[My teammates and I] created some lasting memories when we were at Texas,” she said to TexasSports.com. “We worked very hard every day practicing and staying in shape, but we were always having fun.”

She told the Statesman in 2015 she still plays golf regularly. Akins (in 2015) was the women’s club champion at Spanish Oaks Golf Club in Austin and played with what the paper called “a stout handicap of 3.” 

New Golf Channel reporter Angela Hamann, who as Angela Akins was a star golfer at Marble Falls High School and then TCU and Texas, made her on-air debut last week.(GOLF CHANNEL)

What else connects her to UT?

According to the TexasSports.com interview, her father was Marty Akins, an All-American quarterback for Texas. She said he introduced her to the Longhorns at a young age. 

Oh, and her grandfather is legendary Texas high school football coach Ray Akins.

“When I first got my chance to interview at Fox Sports Southwest, I was asked if I knew anything about football and I just had to laugh,” Hamann said in her Statesman interview. “About the only sport I love more than golf is football, and Texas football is the best.”

» RELATED: Sergio Garcia: A great Masters story we didn’t see coming

That’s a lot of famous relatives.

And we haven’t even said that New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is her cousin.

Where has she worked as a journalist?

According to her Golf Channel page, Akins was a reporter and co-host for several FOX Sports Southwest programs. These included “Fox Football Friday,” a live four-hour highlight show of Texas high school football, and “Access Golf,” a half-hour golf lifestyle program. She also covered college football for Conference USA and the Southland Conference. 

She joined the Golf Channel in 2015 as a reporter, on-air personality for the evening news program and interviewer for the PGA Tour. 

Akins credits UT with helping start her journalism career. 

“Our professors taught us how to be the best journalists, how to report objectively and with integrity and how to represent The University of Texas when we ventured into the world,” she said. “Without the support I received from my family, professors, coaches, the academic staffs in the athletics and communications departments and my teammates, I would not be where I am today.”

Does she still live in Texas?

Taking a job with the Golf Channel required moving to Florida, she said in her interview with TexasSports.com. Akins said she misses her home state.

“In my opinion, Austin is the greatest city in the world,” she said. “We have the best food and music and there's so much to do. I miss running around Lady Bird Lake, playing golf on all the great courses and all the amazing outdoor activities the city has to offer. Every year I try to make it back to several UT football games and support the Longhorns. And I watch a ton of Texas sports on television.”

» RELATED: Rose says he will be back contending at Masters

When did Akins and Garcia get engaged?

The two announced they were getting married in a tweet in January.

Do they play golf together? 

Absolutely. Akins’ Twitter and Instagram accounts are full of adorable pictures of the two of them having fun and playing golf together. 

Sergio said from a golfer’s perspective, he appreciates having Angela and her father Marty around.

“It definitely helps, there's no doubt about the background that the whole family has,” Garcia said in a Golf Digest interview. “Marty is a very, very positive, very, you know, outspoken and very, very confident kind of guy, and it definitely helps when he's encouraging you and things like that. Those things are nice to see. Angela is the same way. They are all very competitive. So you know, they are positive things to help out, for sure.”

Show me some of these adorable photos, please.

Of course.

💙 Credit: @muhaphotos

A post shared by Angela Akins (@theangelaakins) on

When did they get married?

Garcia and Akins married July 29, 2017, in Texas. Yes, he wore the green jacket given to winners of The Masters.

Kenny G performed at their wedding, 

Kuchar joins clubhouse lead with opening-round 65

Published: Thursday, July 20, 2017 @ 2:11 PM

Matt Kuchar lines up a putt on the 15th hole during the first round of the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale on July 20, 2017, in Southport, England.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Matt Kuchar lines up a putt on the 15th hole during the first round of the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale on July 20, 2017, in Southport, England.(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Using a 5-under par 29 on his front 9, Matt Kuchar shot 5-under in his opening round of The Open Championship to join Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka as clubhouse leaders. 

The Georgia Tech product made five birdies in his first nine holes on the way to a first-round 65. He had multiple opportunities on the back 9 to be the first to reach 6-under, but he couldn’t get one to fall. He parred his final nine holes. 

Kuchar, like many others in the field, struggled to hit fairways on Thursday, but he hit 12 greens and scrambled for par when needed on the way in. He got up-and-down from deep behind the green on 18 to secure a spot at the top of the leaderboard late into the first round. 

Kuchar’s 65 is the best of his career in a major championship.


This year’s Open Championship is Kuchar’s 13th. He missed six of his first seven cuts, but he’s made the last five -- including two top 15’s. 

His tee time on Friday for the second round is at 3:36 a.m. ET. Rain and strong winds are expected, which could potentially benefit Kuchar and his lower ball flight. 

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