Brazil will meet challenges says '96 Games boss Payne

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Augusta (United States) (AFP)

Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne, organizing group leader of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, said Wednesday that national pride will push Brazil to meet the challenges to August's Games.

On the eve of the 80th Masters tournament over the famed course, Payne said the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the first since 1904 to feature golf, is like many to be beset with problems less than four months before the start.

The Zika virus, water pollution, political turmoil and protests over spending so much on an Olympics with some areas in poverty have become issues in Brazil, along with the readiness of some venues and weak ticket sales due to potential visitor worries.

"There are a multitude of concerns as you approach the Games about the state of preparedness," Payne said. "All of the issues surface almost every time, but somehow countries, when their national pride is at stake, have a way of rising to the occasion, and I suspect that's what we will see in Brazil this summer."

Payne, the driving force behind Atlanta winning and staging the Centennial Olympics, was elected Augusta National chairman 10 years ago. He sees golf getting a major boost from its Olympic return.

"It is the world's largest platform to showcase sports and the best," Payne said. "I think we will see almost immediately with golf's inclusion in the Olympics, multiple countries starting using resources and capital into the development of their own golf programs, because these countries want to win medals. So I think it will be a very positive long-term effect."

It won't hurt that the men's gold medal winner will receive entry into the next year's major championships and the women's champion will gain a place in the five subsequent women's golf majors.

"We were proud to do it," Payne said of the extra Masters berth. "We think it is appropriate."

Payne says that boost to the sport could produce its greatest impact in Asia, which thus far has produced only one men's golf major winner, South Korean Yang Yong-Eun at the 2009 PGA Championship.

"When you look at the potential for golf to develop, the greatest opportunity for kids to become involved in the game and the game itself to grow as a consequence, there's no better region in the world than throughout Asia," Payne said.

Payne said the club has not pondered the impact if in future Olympic years the PGA Championship, typically played in August at the same time as the Olympics are often scheduled, made a move to earlier in the year, supplanting the Masters as a year's first major tournament.

"Haven't thought about that," Payne said. "It won't affect our ticket sales, I can promise you."

The club is considering renovations on some holes to allow for technology-enhanced driving distance improvements, including buying land to lengthen the 13th hole, the par-5 finishing hole of the famed difficult three-hole stretch known as Amen Corner.

"We have made no decision whatsoever," Payne said. "Plans are underway to be considered and that is one of many holes that we now have under consideration.

"We think there are multiple options where we could increase the difficulty of the hole and restore the shot values, only one of which deals with extending the length."

Creating a special ball used only at the Masters to limit distance, an idea pushed by 18-time major winner Jack Nicklaus, is "not something we would want to do," Payne said.

But the club will tear down a media building to create a larger spectator entry area to the course after an evacuation for bad weather years ago produced a safety issue.

"We had some issues about the safety of our patrons in the corridor," Payne said. "The corridor will be widened to allow for the safe traverse of our fans to and from the course."