Masters feels growing Payne as Augusta looks to future

Augusta National chairman Billy Payne drives a golf cart along one of the roads at the course during player practice rounds ahead of the 2015 Masters at the Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Georgia April 6, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Once resistant to opening club doors to blacks and women, Augusta National, the manicured and staid home of the Masters, has often embraced change as enthusiastically as most Americans welcome higher taxes.

But in recent years, the club that did not admit its first woman member until 2012 has displayed progressive vision and long-range planning as it focuses its considerable resources and efforts on growing the game around the world and expanding the club's boundaries at home.

Augusta National has helped develop and promote the Asia-Pacific and Latin America Amateur Championships, with the winners earning a spot in the year's first major.

A Drive, Chip and Putt competition designed to bring more children into the sport was staged at Augusta last weekend and the winners received their trophies from past Masters champions, while the club has earmarked a reported $40 million (27 million pounds) to purchase nearly 100 homes as part of elaborate expansion plans.

"We have been working very hard, trying to do our best to positively address the mandate of continuous improvement established by beloved cofounders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts," Augusta chairman Billy Payne told reporters during his annual press conference on Wednesday.

"Doing the best we can do, now includes a growing emphasis on our efforts to help others grow the game."

Payne, who oversaw the running of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, took over from Hootie Johnson as club chairman in 2006.

He has shepherded Augusta National into a new era, welcoming Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore as the first women members, as well as developing a social media and digital media presence, while also expanding the Masters global television coverage.

Built on tradition, Augusta and its members have on occasion still found it difficult to let go of the past.

When the iconic Eisenhower Tree, which guarded the 17th fairway, was felled by an ice storm last year the club went into mourning.

But the Eisenhower Tree, named after the U.S. president who was an Augusta member and, legend has it, routinely hit his ball into the tree, will live on, as Payne proudly noted on Wednesday when he said the stately pine has been successfully cloned.

"As we try hard to contribute to the future health of the game, so, too, must we appropriately remember the past," said Payne. "I am pleased to announce that we have been successful, so far, in preserving this famous tree's genetics.

"What you now see are three surviving, and so far thriving results, of two successful grafts and one seedling of the Eisenhower Tree.

"Not surprisingly they have become some of our most loved and cherished possessions here."

(Editing by Andrew Both)

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