For the first time since Bobby Jones built his dream golf course, a real golfer is in charge of Augusta National Golf Club.
Fred Ridley – a former U.S. Amateur champion who competed in three Masters Tournaments – officially takes over the reins as chairman from Billy Payne this week as the club reopens for the season.
After spending 11 years setting up the golf course as the chairman of the competition committee, Ridley now has the power to do whatever he wants with the property. If he decides to add 50 yards to the 13th hole, he can do that. If he wants to rebuild the fourth hole to its exact parameters 100 yards away from its current location and create more space to expand or tinker with Nos. 3 and 5, he has the room, resources and authority to do that, too. If he thinks there needs to be a monorail circling the property, that’s his prerogative as well.
With his experience as an amateur competitor, USGA president and Masters set-up man, you’d expect Ridley to be more focused on the golf aspects than his predecessor.
Whatever plans Ridley has for his tenure as chairman – and he’s not saying what he has in mind to do with the acquired borders behind Amen Corner and across old Berckmans Road other than “we are looking at those” – his stated mission parameters are to defer to the original golf guy who built the place.
“Mr. Jones wanted strategy as well as skill to be a big part of the golf course and competition,” Ridley told The Augusta Chronicle last week. “Shot values – we’ve all heard that term – I think we always need to be mindful of anything we do to the golf course that we are true to that principle.”
The golf course itself has remained relatively untouched during the last 12 years, with Payne devoting much of his efforts to upgrading and expanding the patron experience outside the ropes. It was Hootie Johnson who oversaw the dramatic changes to 14 holes from 1998-2006 – adding 520 yards and tightening the course with hundreds of trees and a second cut of modest rough to protect it against modern players wielding modern equipment.
Anyone who’s hoping Ridley might oversee some kind of restoration project by removing some of the trees and rough that choked off strategic options intended by the original designers are likely to be disappointed.
“Recent history has proved that those were good decisions,” Ridley said. “If you look at what has happened in the tournament in the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve had a lot of excitement, all great winners, so I think that Mr. Johnson was really the catalyst for those changes and I think they stood the test of time.”
Past chairmen going back to the beginning have often relied on the advice of Masters winners and accomplished architects to augment the course. Tom Fazio has been the architect of choice for two decades, as the club has resisted seeking the advice of two-time winner Ben Crenshaw, a noted golf historian whose design partnership with Bill Coore has spearheaded a new golden age in golf course architecture.
Augusta National became a larger player in the global grow-the-game movement under Payne, taking a prominent role in developing the Asia-Pacific and Latin America amateurs and hosting the finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship.
Ridley has an opportunity to piggyback on Payne’s admission of female members by providing a motivating lift to the women’s game. It’s unrealistic to ask Augusta National to establish an annual women’s Masters, but hosting a one-off team event at the end of the summer would engender goodwill that would resonate for decades. If not inviting a future Solheim Cup, Augusta National could help create a new international team event that includes the great female players from Asia, Australia and other global markets.
That’s a role Augusta played 80 years ago when it introduced the first two Senior PGA Championships won by Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod, who later became the original honorary starters at the Masters.
“I think if you look at our club schedule and the fact we’re closed five months – we spend the better part of three or four months really preparing the course for the Masters Tournament – it really makes it almost impossible to do that,” Ridley said. “I guess I’d have to say that’s something we wouldn’t be able to do.”
That differs from the attitude former chairman Jack Stephens had in the early 1990s. When Payne, as the head of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, approached Stephens about Augusta National hosting men’s and women’s golf as a demonstration sport in the 1996 Olympics, Stephens agreed that the club could handle keeping its course in shape one summer for a once-in-a-lifetime event that would be good for the game.
Unfortunately politics intervened and prevented it from happening. But Augusta National certainly has the resources and ability to deviate from its rhythms one season and do whatever it chooses.
All it takes is another chairman with a vision to make anything he wants happen. In the coming years, we’re about to find out where Ridley takes Augusta National and the Masters.