The headlines out of Augusta this week included word that the gold medalist in the modern Olympics debut of the men’s golf competition this summer will also be receiving an invitation to play in the 2017 Masters Tournament.
While it marks the first time that the Augusta National is officially linking itself to an Olympic competition, it is not the first time it was attempted.
If there is a such thing as the greatest lost opportunity in the history of the Augusta National Golf Club, you would be hard pressed to move beyond “the swing and the miss” that was the 1996 Summer Olympics.
In 1987 Georgia businessman Billy Payne was regarded as a wildly optimistic dreamer when he proposed bringing the 1996 Centennial Summer Olympics to Atlanta. Well, allow me to rephrase: He was called that by people who did not know him very well. If you knew Billy Payne, you knew him as a cross between a dragon slayer, a drill sergeant and your favorite stern but fair uncle.
Tenacious almost to a fault, these were traits John Carlin described 20 years ago in a profile for the UK’s Independent, that have been with him since his youth:
In the purity of his childhood he revealed early on a single-minded desire to win that at times frightened his family, not least his grandfather whom he played (games) against with an almost psychotic competitiveness, collapsing in despair when he lost. His father only made the obsessiveness worse. “My daddy always said, ‘Never was a horse that couldn’t be rode or a rider that couldn’t be throwed’,” Payne likes to tell his audiences. “He would say, ‘Billy, if you’re not smarter than a lot of people or a better athlete than somebody you can always outwork them’.”
Payne’s adult track record showed he had no tolerance for slackers or much stomach for pipe dreams. His “seize the moment” attitude was said to be born of losing both his father and sister to illness at relatively young ages.
All of which should have been a dead giveaway on why any wise gambler would have been insane to bet against him in the quest to secure his vision for Atlanta.
But even Chamber of Commerce types (people who would chase a floating $20 bill over the edge of a seaside cliff) could not dare to believe the proposal Payne was putting forth as the unfathomable cherry that would sit on the top of his inconceivable Olympic dream for Atlanta: Olympic golf to be played at Augusta National.
In those days, Hord Hardin was in the midst of his 11-year run as the chairman at Augusta National. While he was no Clifford Roberts, he was beyond a shadow of a doubt the one man who most closely matched the traditional mindset and mentality of the founding chairman. I have no idea what line of reasoning or salesmanship Payne used to convince Hardin and his inner circle of Green Coats to even consider opening up Augusta National for Olympic golf competition, but whatever it was, it worked.
The same organization that for years resisted live front nine TV coverage and, at that point, did not even have a full-time media coordinator on the payroll, agreed in concept to host an Olympic golf competition at the home of the Masters.
And so it was announced October 21, 1992, in an unprecedented press conference at the Augusta National. The entire region was ecstatic over the amazing announcement, with huge headlines the next day in the Augusta Chronicle (owned by ANGC member Billy Morris) in a size and style normally reserved to announce the winner of a presidential election. For years the clip of then Mayor Charles DeVaney waving a giant Olympic flag over a huge crowd cheering the announcement played at the intro of the Channel 6 newscast.
It was all set. For the first time in history, there would be a meaningful tournament played at Augusta National in the summertime. With the exception of on-course maintenance and on-grounds hospitality, the club would largely be a silent host. A tidbit which was unheard of in theory, and incomprehensible in practice.
Without one moment’s hesitation I can tell you that Olympic golf at Augusta National would have been the highlight of the summer of 1996.
While one immediately conjures visions of Greg Norman representing Australia, Gary Player serving as Captain of the South African team, Seve Ballesteros shepherding the Spanish effort, Vijay Singh wearing his Fiji colors and so on, consider the even more amazing spectacle that would have come from watching the smaller countries proudly taking their place on one of sport’s greatest stages.
The women’s teams of Jamaica and Japan teeing off at sunrise in July in Augusta. All of the excitement and national pride on display as usual in Olympic competition playing out on the most familiar and cherished golf course in the history of this country, if not arguably, the entire world.
Atlanta Olympic Chairman Billy Payne had it all signed, sealed and delivered.
As word of this unparalleled partnership began to sink in, the hue and cry of America’s chronic complainers, the career politically correct crowd, rang out like an air raid siren, only with a significantly more annoying sound.
The then president of the Atlanta City Council, Bill Campbell, was one of the more outspoken critics of the plan, as Flip Bondy reported for the New York Times in November of 1992:
The Atlanta City Council this week unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution urging the U.S.O.C. and the I.O.C. not to select Augusta as the host course for the Olympic competition. Councilman Bill Campbell, the sponsor of the resolution, called the site “profoundly inappropriate, given the historic lack of any black, Jewish or other minority members.”
“Augusta National, by virtually all accounts, had a racially and sexually discriminating membership,” said Campbell, who is black.
Ironic condemnation from Campbell, who at the time was a proud member of the gender exclusive (and unless I am mistaken, 100 percent black) fraternity Omega Psi Phi. He was also misinformed. The club had welcomed its first black members several years earlier, and had invited Jewish members decades before that.
Sadly, it did not take long for the short-sighted whiners to get their way, and soon the proposal was scuttled by the International Olympic Committee.
Other than death, or devastating natural disaster, there may not have been a worse piece of local news delivered in my lifetime.
Untold millions of dollars of economic impact were lost for the CSRA, and Augusta became the only major city in Georgia not to host any Olympic events in 1996.
But Augustans were not the only ones disappointed, as Dennis Sodomka wrote for the Chronicle in 1996:
“It’s clear the biggest thing missing here is golf at Augusta,” said Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. “I’m sorry about that. It’s my biggest personal disappointment.”
Losing Olympic golf also was one of the biggest disappointments for Augusta-area residents, many of whom said the whole episode left a bad taste in their mouths for the whole Olympics.
That is the damn truth. I personally refused to watch one minute of anything related to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and to this day have stayed away from watching or following the games in any meaningful way.
The happy postscript is that in 1997 Billy Payne was invited himself to become a member of Augusta National, and in a development that many could have predicted, became the chairman in 2006. During his tenure the club has enjoyed amazing success and expansion, as well as welcoming women into the membership. One of the first is perhaps the most accomplished black woman in the history of American politics, Condoleeza Rice.
That move officially made ANGC more “diverse” than Bill Campbell’s frat.
While Campbell eventually became the mayor of Atlanta, presiding at the time of the 1996 games, his stewardship of the city during that event was notorious and widely condemned. My old friend Neal Boortz once described Campbell’s management of Atlanta’s cityscape and public areas during the Olympics as something you would expect of a shady carnival huckster, with the taste and greediness of an intoxicated, downtown pimp. Or something to that effect.
Campbell was later disbarred and served two years in federal prison after being tried on a collection of corruption charges tied to his time in office, and his conviction on several counts of tax evasion. He is out now, and most likely living under a rock, or some equally smarmy place.
And this just in, I am genuinely looking forward to watching Olympic golf this summer, and shaking the hand of the eventual gold medalist, exactly one year from this week.