Master of The Masters

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M. James Ward examines the role of the Masters Chairman. Why Fred Ridley's voice reverberates throughout the global golf community and how Augusta's role has now expanded far beyond Magnolia Lane's entrance on Washington Road
Posted on
April 4, 2023
by
M. James Ward in
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The turbulence created by the emergence of LIV when it entered the professional golf scene in 2022 brought into focus a sharp turn away from the pre-ordained regularity within the global golf community.

The dominance and monopoly of the PGA TOUR was upended by a deep-pocketed group spearheaded by a spurned former world number one player and bankrolled by a country hellbent on establishing a toehold of respectability while still carrying out and enforcing actions flouting human rights concerns internally and externally.

Given the fact that each major championship is independently operated and outside the direct control of the PGA TOUR, the discussion among the four major events centered on what actions if any, each might take in determining if LIV players would be eligible to compete in any of them.

On December 20, 2022 a detailed statement from Masters Chairman Fred Ridley put matters definitively to rest. The statement read in part:

"Regrettably, recent actions have divided men’s professional golf by diminishing the virtues of the game and the meaningful legacies of those who built it. Although we are disappointed in these developments, our focus is to honor the tradition of bringing together a preeminent field of golfers this coming April."

"Therefore, as invitation are sent this week, we will invite those eligible under our current criteria to compete in the 2023 Masters Tournament. As we have said in the past, we look at every aspect of the Tournament each year, and any modifications or change to invitation criteria for future Tournament will be announced in April."

Ridley's preemptive statement effectively decided the matter. For the other three majors the move by The Masters terminated any other option being considered.

Power is a hard concept to define with exact precision. But make no mistake about it. The voice of Fred Ridley matters as Augusta National's 7th Chairman. And it is his voice, and his alone, that speaks on behalf of the club.

Ridley assumed the Chairman's position on August 22, 2017 following the 11-year reign of Billy Payne. Ridley has been a member of Augusta National since 2000.

The six men who preceded Ridley each had varying skillsets and personalities. Clifford Roberts set the tone as one of the two co-founders with Bob Jones. His long tenure from 1931-1976 laid the foundation for each Chairman that followed.

The Seven Chairmen of Augusta National Golf Club

  • Clifford Roberts (1931-1976)
  • William Lane (1977-1980)
  • Hord Hardin (1980-1991)
  • Jack Stephens (1991-1998)
  • William "Hootie" Johnson (1998-2006)
  • Billy Payne (2006-2017)
  • Fred S. Ridley (2017-current)

The mindset of Roberts was laser-like in detail and utterly focused on developing a golf club rising to heights unimagined when it first opened for play in 1932. Roberts was fully aware of a golf world outside the gates of Washington Road but his focus was squarely on erecting a wall of privacy while doing everything possible in pushing The Masters to the top of the list as golf's premier event on the planet.

Ridley's skillset in becoming Chairman is the most comprehensive of any past Chairman and his talents start specifically on the golf side as an active player. The 70-year-old played collegiately at the University of Florida and in 1975 captured the U.S. Amateur. The win was highlighted by three match play victories against the likes of Curtis Strange, Andy Bean and in the final against Keith Fergus. Each of the aforementioned players would go on to successful careers on the PGA TOUR with Strange eventually voted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Ridley was selected to play as a USA member for both the 1976 World Amateur and the 1977 Walker Cup teams. He would later be named as non-playing captain for the USA squad in the World Amateur in 2010 and for the Walker Cup teams in 1987 and 1989. His playing record included ten appearances in the U.S. Amateur and he even competed in the British Amateur. He is the last golfer to have won the U.S. Amateur and not turn professional.

Most impressively he is the only Chairman to date that has actually played in The Masters from 1976-1978.

His involvement in golf extended as a volunteer who moved up the ranks after being selected by the United States Golf Association (USGA) to serve on its Executive Committee from 1994-2005 with a two-year stint as the 58th President in 2004-2005.

After joining the membership ranks of Augusta National, Ridley eventually became the lead person on the competition committee - a forerunner to his ascension to the position of Chairman.

A lawyer by profession, Ridley is ever mindful of both the legacy of the club with its connection to Jones and Roberts but has also sought to build upon the stature of Augusta National, both internally and externally.

Ridley's temperament and personal style is grounded in avoiding bold rash statements. His words are measured and stated with precision. Whereas William "Hootie" Johnson stated in explicit terms in 2002 that Augusta National would not be pressured into accepting women "at the point of a bayonet," it is inconceivable Ridley would leap off the ledge of sensibility and inflame matters with such poorly thought-out bombast.

During his annual press conference at the 2018 Masters, Ridley announced the creation of the Augusta National Women's Amateur, with the inaugural championship taking place the week prior to the 2019 Masters.

On the golf course side, Ridley has also been clear Augusta National will take whatever steps are needed to preserve the relevance and integrity of the design by Bob Jones and Dr. Alister MacKenzie. A case in point being the extension of the par-5 13th tee for this year's tournament.

Ridley's outreach efforts also meant reaching out to Lee Elder, the first Black golfer to play in The Masters in 1975 and inviting him to participate in the opening tee shot ceremony in 2021 with Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.

It's noteworthy to point out that while Major League Baseball integrated in 1947 it would be 28 additional years before The Masters had Elder tee it up in the event and it would take another 15 years before the club invited Ron Townsend to become the first Black member of Augusta National.

Ridley's invitation to Elder was coupled with another effort on behalf of the Black community. Several months before that ceremonial event took place Ridley announced Augusta National would underwrite the costs of creating a women's golf team at Augusta-based Paine College and also provide an annual scholarship to one member of the men's and women's golf teams in the name of Elder.

Yet the female connection to Augusta National took even longer. Minimal protests were staged during the 2003 event, however, the club held out till 2012 when Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore were asked to join and both accepted.

Ridley has three daughters and his desire to include women front and center at Augusta National was made clear during his 2022 press event remarks.

"Our culture is better. I am confident in saying to a person we're a better club, we're a better organization and we're very proud to have women among our membership."

"When any idea you have turns out well, and you're pleased about it, you might always say why didn't we do that sooner? That's a fair thought."

"The fact remains that women members are a very important part of our membership and you will continue to see over the years, if you look, more green jackets that are women. I'm going to make sure of that."

Unquestionably, a clear contrast to the comments uttered by Hootie Johnson twenty years earlier.

Outside tournaments affiliated with Augusta National

  • Latin America Amateur Championship (started 2014)
  • Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship (started 2009)
  • Augusta National Women's Amateur (started 2019)
  • Drive, Chip & Putt (started 2013)

Ridley's predecessor Billy Payne took the initiative in having Augusta National become a central force in the promotion of golf in distant locations far outside the State of Georgia. That effort has been continued by Ridley through the most recent addition of the Women's Amateur.

Balancing the desire to keep certain club matters private has always been a central tenet of Augusta National. Ridley is intent on continuing that self-imposed veil, while, at the same time, connecting to the broader golf world in the fervent hope Augusta National can play a front seat role with initiative being effectively seeded and nurtured.

The ongoing squabble of the PGA TOUR and LIV and the recent announcement by the USGA and R&A in having an "elite golf ball" starting in 2026 for the upper reaches of those at the professional and amateur levels are pivotal issues and ones Ridley will need to address when he hold his annual press conference the day prior to the start of the event.

In recent years, Augusta National has also purchased adjoining properties beyond the original boundaries of the property. There is even speculation a second 18-hole layout, one originally proposed for women specifically, may be built on the newly acquired property. That remains to be seen.

During the club's formulative years there was even speculation an adjoining communal village would be created. Reminiscent of what is seen today at Pinehurst through the efforts of Frederick Olmstead who was considered to do similarly at Augusta National. In both instances, nothing materialized primarily because of the impact of The Great Depression.

While the waters that golf sails in today are turbulent it is Ridley's steady voice and sure hands propelling him to a center stage position. The Chairman's voice is the first among equals among the sport's four major events And the overall brand name of The Masters places it easily among the most celebrated events annually.

Ridley was quick to add during his press conference in 2022, "Our mission is always to act in the best interests of the game in whatever form that may take."

The balancing act ensures a difficult test, to be sure, of leadership. Yet, those who know Ridley uniformly praise him as the right man to serve as Chairman. Ridley is well aware of the high bar set by Jones and Roberts, but he has shown a deft touch pushing a forward-looking agenda without being cemented to a past that was not especially glowing on all fronts.

Planning for the future has always been a key factor for Augusta National Golf Club. Ridley now, and Payne before him, put matters in motion ensuring Augusta is no longer seen as a one-week event but one that yearly contributes to the health of golf in numerous ways and through multiple levels.

It is for that reason Ridley's reign rightly resonates with the meritorious tagline, "Master of The Masters."

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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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