The New Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, Fred Ridley
Augusta National’s newest chairman is a scratch player who still gets a tingle down his spine every time he enters the club.
Ridley, 65, took over for Billy Payne when the club reopened for its season in October. The real estate lawyer who calls Tampa, Fla., his home is the first chairman to have ever played in the tournament; Ridley won the U.S. Amateur in 1975, and he played in the Masters the following three years.
But he spurned the chance to tee it up against the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson and instead settled on a law career.
“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,” Ridley said. “I’m very grateful to have this opportunity.”
The man who idolized Bobby Jones and once met Roberts said the co-founders of Augusta National and the Masters remain first in his thoughts.
“The only legacy that matters here is the legacy of Mr. Jones and Mr. Roberts. They are the ones that established the mandate of constant improvement, which is going to drive me and my goals as chairman of the club,” Ridley said.
“I feel that if I follow that mandate, I’ll be in a position when my time is over to pass this honor on to my successor even stronger than it is today. That’s my goal, and that’s what I think Mr. Jones and Mr. Roberts would expect.”
Augusta National takes great pride in passing the torch of its chairmanship to the right person.
So much so, in fact, that through the 2017 Masters Tournament there had been only six chairmen in the club’s nearly nine decades of existence.
When Payne decided last summer that he was ready to step down, he invoked some words of wisdom.
“I was told by my predecessor, Hootie Johnson, the most important decision you’ll ever make is who succeeds you,” Payne said.
Ridley got the nod.
“It became clear that Fred Ridley was immensely qualified and a wonderful human being, and highly regarded by the membership and the world of golf,” Payne said.
Payne, who welcomed the first female members at Augusta National, embraced digital technology to promote the Masters and sought new ways to grow golf, stepped down after 11 years at the helm. Under Payne’s watch, Augusta National’s grounds were transformed with an aggressive program that included improvements in parking, on-course amenities, hospitality and even how patrons arrived at the course with the realignment of Berckmans Road.
Ridley has big shoes to fill, but those who know him say he’s up to the task.
“He’s a logical thinker,” said Steve Melnyk, a former U.S. Amateur and British Amateur champion who has known Ridley for decades. “Given the prominence of chairmanship at Augusta National, I think he’s perfect for it. I think he will advance their agenda. The tournament and club will be better off for it.”
While Payne didn’t oversee many changes to Augusta National’s layout, Melnyk sees an opportunity for Ridley to make his mark in that way.
“I think Fred sees the tournament through the prism of a competitive golfer. I think that will be beneficial in many ways,” Melnyk said. “ The tournament is the most important role, if you will, of the chairman, and I think Fred will bring a fresh set of eyes. I think that will be a benefit.”
You could say that Ridley has been preparing for this role since he played in his first Masters.
He is easily the most distinguished golfer to become chairman of the club and tournament. His resume includes competing in 10 U.S. Amateurs and he was a member of the 1976 U.S. World Amateur Team and the 1977 U.S. Walker Cup Team. He later served as captain of the 1987 and 1989 U.S. Walker Cup teams and the 2010 U.S. World Amateur Team.
He also served on the USGA Executive Committee from 1994-2005 and was elected president of the USGA for 2004-05. He joined Augusta National in 2000 and was chairman of the tournament’s Competition Committee from 2007-17.
“I’m fortunate in one respect as in my role as competition committee chair I was involved with a lot of issues, certainly what I would call inside the ropes, I was exposed to pretty much everything relating to the Masters Tournament,” he said.
Even with that pedigree, those who know him best say that Ridley shatters the image of the golf administrator who has a stiff upper lip and frowns on fun.
Perhaps it’s his wife, Betsy, and their three daughters that keep him looking much younger than his real age.
His youngest daughter, Sydney, even puts photos of her dad’s hair on social media using the hashtag #Fredshair.
“We love to make fun of him,” she told the Tampa Bay Times. “And he takes it like a champ.”
For Ridley, that’s an issue that his predecessors never had to endure. But make no mistake. At the end of the day, Ridley has the final say on all things Augusta National and the Masters, and he won’t forget the roots laid down by Jones and Roberts.
“Our founders established some very, very strong principles,” Ridley said. “And if we keep going back to those, and if we keep trying to get better, then we’re going to be fine.”
PREVIOUS CHAIRMEN AT AUGUSTA NATIONAL GOLF CLUB
CLIFFORD ROBERTS (1931-76): He was the brains behind most of what is the Masters Tournament today. He joined with golfer Bobby Jones to organize the club and start the invitational tournament. Innovations included mounds for spectators to view play and bringing television to the tournament in 1956. He died in 1977.
BILL LANE (1977-80): He served a very short period of time as chairman. Lane succeeded Roberts in 1977 but soon became ill and was hospitalized. Notable occurrences during his tenure were the Par-3 Course being converted to bentgrass in preparation for installation on the main course and the patron badge waiting list being closed in 1978. Hord Hardin became acting chairman in 1979, and Lane died in 1980.
HORD HARDIN (1980-91): Changes during his tenure included the acceptance of Ron Townsend, the club’s first black member, in 1990; the change from bermuda to slick bentgrass greens in 1981; allowing non-Augusta National caddies to work the Masters beginning in 1983; and the reinstatement of honorary starters, featuring Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, in 1981. He died in 1996.
JACK STEPHENS (1991-98): Under his watch, limitations on practice-round tickets were instituted and an agreement was reached to use Augusta National as the venue for golf in the 1996 Olympic Games. The plan was later rejected by the IOC when Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell was critical of the lack of minorities on the Augusta National membership roll. He died in 2005.
HOOTIE JOHNSON (1998-2006): To combat advances in technology, he oversaw several changes to the golf course that stretched the layout to 7,445 yards. He also made headlines for refusing to give in to activist Martha Burk, who urged the club to admit women as members. Johnson also made changes to the qualification system for the Masters and instituted 18-hole television coverage of the tournament. He died in 2017.
BILLY PAYNE (2006-2017): He welcomed the first female members at Augusta National Golf Club, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, in 2012. He sought new ways to grow golf and did so by joining forces with golf’s governing bodies to create the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship for children ages 7-15. Under his watch, Augusta National and the game’s ruling bodies also created two new amateur tournaments, the Asia-Pacific Amateur and Latin America Amateur.
John Boyette is sports editor of The Augusta Chronicle.
Article appears in the April 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.