Why Fred Ridley is an Augusta National chairman unlike any other
AUGUSTA, Ga. — This is a new era. The chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club had a question for a reporter. Usually, you know, it goes the other way.
“You’re referring to the Dude Perfect guys, right?” the club chairman, Fred Ridley, said to the reporter who had asked about a “viral video” made by “some guys who had playing Amen Corner in a way we have never seen before.”
Yes, those dudes, with 57 million YouTube followers.
In Augusta National’s 92-year history, Ridley is likely to be the first chairman to use the word “dude” and “YouTube” in the space of several sentences.
By tradition, Augusta National clings to tradition. For example, every player in the field receives a printed invitation with these four letters in the lower left-hand corner: RSVP. Ridley said that Phil Mickelson who has played in every Masters since 1995, RSVPed in late February or early March — by text. Evidently, Mickelson said (by text) that he would not be playing.
“And I thanked him for his courtesy in letting me know,” Ridley said. “I told him that we certainly appreciated that and told him that I was certainly willing to discuss that further with him if he’d like. And he thanked me. We had a very cordial exchange.”
Roughly two weeks later, there was a fine-print change on the club’s Masters website: Mickelson’s name moved from one column, the list of players invited to this year’s tournament, to another list, players invited who would not be playing.
Needless to say, Ben Hogan’s name never made a similar migration. Hogan played his final Masters in 1967, when Clifford Roberts was still the club’s chairman and Bobby Jones its president.
Ridley is proving to be an extraordinary chairman of the club. By manner he is formal and low-key, but by word and deed he is really nothing like any of his predecessors. He’s almost a radical.
Reading prepared remarks to reporters at the start of a press conference late Wednesday morning, Ridley noted the death of Lee Elder.
“In November, we also lost one of golf’s greatest pioneers, Lee Elder,” Ridley said. “A year ago, we honored the important [role] Lee played as the first Black man to compete in the Masters. It is a moment we will treasure forever.
“Since announcing Augusta National would fund the creation of a women’s golf team as well as a women’s and men’s golf scholarship in Lee’s name, we have worked closely with Paine College to bring these initiatives to fruition. I am proud to welcome the inaugural Lee Elder scholars, Taya Buxton and Devin Smith.”
The two students and golfers stood, wearing the colors of their college. Ridley paused as the frigid Press Building auditorium offered them a round of applause.
Beautiful. Also, unprecedented.
Ridley is likely more expressive than he knows. When a reporter asked him about the unlikely circumstance of this year’s field including Tiger Woods, who was in a single-vehicle car crash 14 months ago that could have claimed his life, and not Mickelson, who won last year’s PGA Championship at age 50, Ridley tilted his head and moved his chin toward his right shoulder, the universal symbol for disbelief.
When a reporter asked what would happen first — a next-generation golf ball that flies shorter than the current one or the 13th tee at Augusta National being moved back — Ridley almost laughed.
Bobby Jones died in 1971, but Ridley cites his name often. The current chairman doesn’t wear a wristband marked with the letters WWBD but he could. Every decision the club makes keeps in mind that Jones, as well as Roberts, intended for the club and the tournament the two men began.
The club has shown a remarkable commitment to racial equality and growing the game globally. It has created pre-tournament events for women and kids. It is unlikely that Jones would recognize the course and the club and the tournament as it exists today. But the guess from this keyboard is that Jones would recognize Ridley’s values and goals and motivation. He’s the last U.S. Amateur winner to never play as a pro.
“I hope he would be proud,” Ridley said, when asked what Jones would make of the state of affairs on Washington Road today. “I hope that he would feel that we continue to carry the tradition and values he thought were so important in the game. I think he would be amazed. If you look at old pictures of this place, the course surrounding is pretty much the same. But not a lot else.
Near the end of his press conference on Wednesday, Ridley was asked what Jones might think if he returned to Augusta today.
“So I think he would be surprised, be amazed. But I think he would be pleased. He certainly would know after speaking with just a few of us that he continues to be revered, and his persona really drives a lot of what we do here.”
As the Dude Perfect guys are wont to say: Indeed!
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com