- By Steve Hummer
Augusta National will have its first chairman who knows the Masters inside and out, as both a competitor and longtime club member.
Fred Ridley, set to become the club’s seventh chairman in October with the departure of Billy Payne, will be the first of these caretakers of the Masters to have played in the tournament. Three times, actually.
Initially gaining entry as the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion, Ridley would crack the Masters field in 1976, ’77 and ’78. He missed the cut all three times.
As the Amateur champ, Ridley first-ever round in ’76 would rank as fairly memorable, as he was paired with the Masters winner from the previous year. That was Jack Nicklaus. Tough to get a better partner than that. For the record, Ridley shot a 77 that day.
While a career playing golf was not in his future, Ridley rebounded nicely. The Lakeland, Fla.-born Ridley, 65, comes to Augusta National chairmanship as a partner in the Tampa firm of Foley & Lardner, specializing in real estate law. He is a graduate of Florida and the Stetson college of law.
As Payne’s hand-picked successor, Ridley not surprisingly received the highest kind of endorsement from the outgoing chairman.
“Any chairman of Augusta, following our founders, is simply the custodian of all the traditions, the protocol, the organization, the passion that they developed when they began the club. It’s an honor that no one should claim as permanent,” Payne told the AJC before his retirement announcement, explaining the timing of his departure.
It was time, Payne said, to weigh retirement, “when the right person surfaces that I think can carry us for the next several years consistent with (the founders’) vision.”
“I think Fred is the perfect person.”
Ridley’s golfing affiliations ran deep long after he stopped competing. He was twice a non-playing Walker Cup captain (having played in 1977). In 2004-05, Ridley served as president of the United States Golf Association. In 2006, he received the PGA of America’s Distinguished Service Award.
Winning the U.S. Amateur was the highlight of his golfing resume, as much for the quality of those he beat along the way in match play as for the title itself. On the path to the title, Ridley eliminated future PGA Tour players Curtis Strange, Andy Bean and Keith Fergus.
As to whether the incoming chairman could have wiped up the course with any of his predecessors Payne smiled and said, “I’m certain of that.”
“(Ridley’s) golf history is well-documented. That’s certainly important. But being chairman is a lot more than that,” Payne said. “I knew he had the other qualities. What I tried to identify was how the members would coalesce around him and his leadership as they have for me.”
One longtime member who knows both men very well remarked that the transition from Payne to Ridley should be seamless, and that their visions for the club and the Masters were quite similar.
For the past 10 years at Augusta National, Ridley has served as chairman of the competition committee, a job dealing with the sometimes-thorny topics of rules interpretation and course setup. Usually, the less the person in that position is in the news, the better.
Case in point: The Great Tiger Woods Drop Controversy of 2013.
Ridley was the man forced to explain how the four-time Masters champion was assessed a two-stroke penalty hours after his second round was finished, following a tip from a TV viewer that Woods took an improper drop.
The incident took place on No. 15 and involved a bizarre series of events begun when his shot to the green ricocheted off the flagstick back into the creek guarding the front of the green. No penalty was assessed at the time as Woods dropped behind his original spot.
Woods later seem to confirm the tipster’s claim when he told ESPN in a taped interview that he wanted to drop a couple yards behind the original spot in order to try a slightly different shot into the green. It was quite the dust-up the following morning.
Ridley occupies a somewhat more consistently shining spotlight now.