Fred Ridley began his tenure as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club this week, replacing Billy Payne who announced he was stepping down from the position in August.
That change in title, however, didn’t alter his enthusiasm on his way to work. That has never changed.
“When I drove down Magnolia Lane as my first day as chairman of the club, I promise you that I did so with the same excitement and anticipation that I had over 41 years ago,” said Ridley, who first visited Augusta National as the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion and had been invited to play the ’76 Masters.
There are those who correctly contend that Augusta National’s chairman is among the most influential people in golf, and Ridley conceded that there’s no on-the-job training that can prepare someone for such a prominent gig, although having Payne as his predecessor will certainly help.
Payne’s 11-year tenure was defined by substantial change, from his business savvy to his ambitious infrastructure projects that included construction of a new tournament range, media center, tournament office and high-end hospitality.
They say nothing really changes at Augusta National, and officials work hard to maintain that notion, but Payne’s time as chairman was nothing short of an extreme makeover.
Ridley will continue to oversee that expansion and talked at length on Tuesday about the club’s continued commitment to growing the game, which has always been a central tenet at Augusta National, but it took on renewed urgency under Payne.
“I don't really know exactly what might come of that, I will tell you that we have several ideas that are being discussed,” Ridley said. “There's nothing definite, no commitments, but I think you'll see in the coming months, that we will be doing other things because I think there is a lot more to be done.”
Where Ridley may forge a new path, however, is on the competitive front.
A lawyer by trade and former USGA president, Ridley has spent the last 11 years as chairman of the Masters competitions committee. He was also an accomplished amateur who played college golf at the University of Florida and the kind of person those who gather under the sprawling oak behind the Augusta National clubhouse call a “golf guy.”
Where Payne was a businessman who skillfully coaxed the club into the new millennium, albeit at a genteel pace, Ridley seems poised to leave a different mark, a mark that could resonate well beyond the gates of Augusta National.
Ridley was asked on Tuesday in his first give-and-take with the golf media as chairman his thoughts on possible changes to the storied course and his answer was equal parts reserved and resounding.
“Some of the most significant changes occurred back in the late 1990s, early 2000s under Hootie Johnson's chairmanship, and I think that time has proven that those were very wise decisions,” he said. “I will tell you that we will take whatever action, whatever course of action is necessary to protect the integrity of Augusta National.”
There’s been speculation in recent months following news that the club had purchased a parcel of land from Augusta Country Club that officials could lengthen the 13th hole, and the rerouting of Berckmans Road could also allow for changes to the course.
While Augusta National, more so than any other course, has been able to withstand the test of time and increased driving distances, the club may be approaching another tipping point, particularly at the celebrated par-5 13th that is regularly played as a two-shot hole even by players who are considered middle-of-the-pack on the modern distance scale.
There are precedents on this front in Ridley’s past. At the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, then-chairman of the USGA’s championship committee Ridley converted the second hole from a par 5 to a par 4.
“I've noticed a lot of the players have commented that, really, records are kept in scores, not necessarily in relation to par,” Ridley said at the time. “I would agree with that. The U.S. Open record of 272 is 8 under par, and I believe Ben Hogan's record of 276 was also 8 under par. We [the USGA] recognize scores.”
Ridley, then the USGA vice president, oversaw a similar adjustment to the ninth hole at Olympia Fields at the ’03 U.S. Open; but it seems wildly unlikely Augusta National would convert the backend of Amen Corner to a par 4 simply to protect par.
There is another, more intriguing option. It’s possible Ridley could take a much more dramatic step to mitigate distance gains and introduce a limited-distance tournament golf ball for the Masters.
“The USGA and the R&A now have a more concentrated effort about that issue,” Payne said in April when asked about a possible “tournament” golf ball. “We have great confidence in their ability to forge a solution. But, of course, as you would imagine, we always reserve the right to do whatever we have to do to preserve the integrity of our golf course. I don't think that will ever happen.”
But that’s not to say it couldn’t happen, particularly with a new chairman who spent decades helping craft and create those same USGA policies, and someone who understands the issue better than anyone.
It remains to be seen what kind of chairman Ridley will become, but if his history is any indication his tenure could be just as profoundly groundbreaking as Payne’s, but for much different reasons.