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Tour commissioner Finchem leads tributes for Johnson

By Staff
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ATLANTA, May 5 (Reuters) The golfing world paid tribute to outgoing Augusta National Golf Club chairman Hootie Johnson today, with PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem leading the accolades.

The 75-year-old Johnson, chairman of Augusta National and the US Masters tournament since May 1, 1998, will be replaced by fellow American Billy Payne on May 21.

''I'd like to express my appreciation for Hootie Johnson and his contributions to the game of golf,'' Finchem said in a statement.

''I've enjoyed working closely with Hootie on a number of initiatives over the years, even prior to his assuming the role of chairman in 1998. He has been a good partner of the PGA Tour and the other golf organisations and he has provided solid stewardship of the Masters.'' Finchem said he was delighted with the choice of Payne as successor.

''The PGA Tour is very pleased with Billy Payne's selection to succeed Hootie,'' he said.

''He has a thorough understanding of PGA Tour tournament golf through his leadership in the role of general chairman of The Tour Championship for the years from 1998 through 2004.

''I can't think of a better choice to succeed Hootie and to provide continued excellent leadership to the club and the Masters.'' Under Johnson's leadership, significant changes have been made to the par-72 Augusta National layout which, at 7,445 yards, became the second longest in major championship history for last month's tournament.

EXCLUSIVE CLUB He also led resistance to demands that women become members at the exclusive club, modified the Masters qualifications for invitation by placing more emphasis on the world rankings and initiated 18-hole television coverage of the year's first major.

''Augusta is what it is, and it's changed a lot in the eight years since he's been there,'' 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk told reporters in Charlotte, North Carolina where he is competing in this week's Wachovia Championship.

''It does not play the same way it did eight years ago or have the same clubs into those greens, at least for me it doesn't, and I'm a lot longer than I was eight years ago.

''He's definitely changed it dramatically, and I don't think anyone is going to argue he's not made that golf tournament or the club worse off. I think he'll have a very positive legacy.'' American Davis Love III, a veteran of 17 Masters tournaments, said: ''Hootie did a great job. He certainly made the golf course tougher, and every time we thought he made it too hard, it played real well.

''I think he meant a lot to the club and to the Masters. It's a hard job these days. It's not something you do for a lifetime.

''I know Billy real well and he'll do a great job. He'll be very decisive and he'll make the club fun. I hope I get a green jacket out of Billy Payne.'' Vijay Singh, the 2000 Masters champion, added: ''I'm just surprised. I think Hootie did a good job and hopefully Billy Payne follows suit.

''I think it's a very difficult organisation to run; a lot of people put their eyes on what you do. I think he did a great job.'' Georgia native Payne, who was president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta Committee for the 1996 Olympic Games, has served as chairman of the Masters media committee since 2000.

Reuters VJ VP0210

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