By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) – Augusta National welcomed its first black member in 1990 and opened its doors to women in 2012 but smartphones will never be allowed on the property as long as Billy Payne is in charge, the club chairman said on Wednesday.
Over the decades the staid home of the U.S. Masters has embraced change as enthusiastically as most Americans welcome higher taxes and has drawn a line in the sand trap when it comes to mobile phones and other electronic devices.
A walk of the manicured grounds is like a stroll into the past. In homage to a bygone era there are no electronic scoreboards, only manual ones where numbers are changed by hand.
At Augusta National phones are the ultra contraband and anyone caught on the grounds with a mobile device is shamed and instantly punished, potentially losing entry privileges.
The PGA Tour began allowing smartphones at its tournaments in 2010, a bow to the reality that thousands of fans were using them anyway and recognizing that young people often found unthinkable the thought of being out of contact for several hours.
But even as smartphone restrictions are relaxed at sporting events around the world the Masters — as long as Payne is calling the shots at Augusta National — will remain a holdout.
During his annual State of the Masters address on Wednesday Payne was asked if the club’s draconian policy might change.
“You’ll have to ask the next chairman,” smiled Payne, in a relaxed but stern southern drawl. “That’s not going to change while I’m chairman.”
Asked if he could explain why he remained so adamant, Payne was no less forthcoming.
“Not really,” he offered, dismissing the question.
Augusta National on the surface appears to have declared war on technology, stubbornly and unapologetically clinging to old fashioned traditions.
But behind the Norman Rockwellian scenes the club has embraced all things high tech.
It may strike some as a touch ironic that two of the three pillar corporate partners at the Masters are IBM and AT&T, blue chip leaders in the IT and telecom sectors.
IBM powers the entire Masters suite of apps and digital platforms, and this year is bringing artificial intelligence technology to Augusta.
For the first time ever at a sporting event, IBM is harnessing the company’s artificial intelligence system Watson’s ability to see, hear, and learn to identify great golf shots, based on crowd noise, player gestures and other indicators, to create highlight reels.
None of this technology, however, will be available to anyone passing through the Augusta National gates.
“I just don’t think it’s appropriate and the noise is an irritation to not only players, the dialing, the conversation, it’s a distraction and that’s the way we’ve chosen to deal with it,” said Payne.
(Editing by Andrew Both)