Augusta National Sets Pace for Golf World

By: Marino Parascenzo

[Editor's Note: Marino Parascenzo is at Augusta National Golf Club this week to cover the 2013 Masters for Cybergolf. Here's his first installment.]

A Chinese kid has been out walking Augusta National. He's not dressed in white coveralls like so many other kids, going around spearing wrappers and cups and such. He's inside the ropes. That is, he's playing, which gives rise to a variation on an old theme:

What's a 14-year-old Chinese kid doing, playing in the Masters?

That's - age 14, and from China. The equivalent of an American eighth grader.

His name is Tianlang Guan. He got into the Masters by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur. But that's not the point. The point is that while nobody has been paying any real attention, Augusta National Golf Club is becoming - or has become - the center of the golf universe. Like one of those distant galaxies turning pinwheels out in deep space, Augusta National is drawing the entire world of golf into its orbit. It's the most vigorous, most exciting thing going on in the game.

Standing at the core of this force field is Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National, who rejects even the hint that he might be anything more than part of the scene. But the revealing key to his role came out in his news conference Wednesday, when he was speaking of efforts by various organizations to reverse the declining interest in golf.

"We have promised to lead or to follow - it doesn't matter," Payne said. "Our industry must continue to address the critical issues of the sport's declining participation among youth and we simply want to help. And we salute the efforts of the USGA, the PGA of America, the R&A, and the PGA Tour and the LPGA for their efforts in growing the game and for allowing us the honor of participating."

The key to this statement are the words "to lead or to follow."

Payne won't take the credit, but Augusta - with the Masters as the lodestar - is the leader. The other organizations have been gravitating toward Augusta, whose real strength is based on its autonomy. It's a free-standing golf club, bound only by what it wants to be bound by, and its principal attraction is its own club championship, the Masters. Golfers lust to play in the Masters, and the rest of the golf world follows them.

Payne likes to say he is merely following in the footsteps of the chairmen who preceded him. But he clearly has gone much further than inviting foreign golfers (they're referred to as "international" now) to the Masters. It was pretty much routine back in the 1970s, for example, when Jumbo Ozaki was invited. He was already the dominant player on the Japan Tour. Then came a real surprise: Liang Wen Chong, in 2008. There wasn't much to Chinese golf at the time, and he was it.

Tianlang, the kid himself, is merely the latest episode in the Masters' international reach. The Asia-Pacific Amateur began in 2009, and Payne, who became the Augusta chairman in 2006, will not take credit for it. Instead, he will say it was a joint initiative with the R&A to stimulate Asian youths' interest in golf, and the incentive was - a berth in the Masters.

It was hardly a surprise, then, when Payne this week announced another joint initiative for kids' golf, this one in the United States - the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, in conjunction with the U.S. Golf Association and PGA of America, both of which are involved in other growth programs.

The kids, in boys' and girls' divisions, will advance through local and regional qualifiers to the finals - at Augusta National on the Sunday before Masters week next year. The finals, of course, will be carried on the Golf Channel. So that's Augusta and the R&A in Asia, and Augusta and the USGA and PGA in the U.S.

Payne doesn't confine his "initiatives" to the kids. Hence the admission of the first two female members to Augusta National, Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, and South Carolina financier Darla Moore. It could be they were admitted to finally silence the uproar that started a few years ago in protest to Augusta's male-only policy. A little political correctness might not hurt the club's vigorous expansion program.

Payne also has not been reluctant to change other policies thought to be rooted in the Masters as much as the azaleas. On Wednesday, he announced a new rule on the 36-hole cut. Starting this week, all players in the top 50, plus ties, will make the cut, a huge change to the rule adopted in 1962, when just the low 44 and ties advanced. Before then, the cut was at the low 40 and ties. And players within 10 shots of the lead will continue to make the cut.

"Now, more than 50 years later," Payne said, "we believe offering more playing opportunities for the participants over the weekend is a positive for everyone involved - for the world's best players wishing to compete over four rounds; for our patrons enjoying the tournament here on-site; and for those golf fans watching at home through our expansive worldwide television broadcast and our continually improving online digital platforms."

Payne also announced another policy change to accommodate changes in the PGA Tour. Payne said that the winners of each of the six PGA Tour events this fall, which are at the start of the 2013-14 season, will earn invitations to the 2014 Masters.

"As many of you know, I have been personally fully committed to players gaining entry to the tournament after winning a PGA Tour event," Payne said.

To keep the field limited to the usual 90 or so, Payne also announced three other changes in qualifications for next year's Masters:

The top 12 finishers (and ties) this year. That's a drop from the top 16.
The top-four finishers and ties from the U.S. Open, down from the top eight.
The top 30 in the PGA Tour's final money list has been removed (the top 30 in FedEx Cup points who qualify for the Tour Championship continues).

There are some areas where Augusta doesn't want to tread. It has long been believed that if the club adopted a single ball for the Masters, the USGA and the R&A - golf's rules makers - might be convinced to limit the modern hot ball. The long putter and the anchored swing are the latest candidates of the rumor mill.

"We are not a governing body," Payne said Wednesday. "I think it would be inappropriate for us to express an opinion."

Payne shuns any attempt to make him some kind of heroic pioneer, instead believing he's only the keeper of the flame. "I really don't characterize much of what we've done as change," he said. "What we've done is to do what we're supposed to do, and that is to be a beacon in the world of golf."

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional awards. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.