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The first time Fred Ridley drove down Magnolia Lane was in 1976. He was a 23-year-old amateur who had been invited to play in the Masters Tournament as the defending U.S. Amateur champion. Never before had he set foot on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National; he had only seen the Masters on television.
On Monday, more than 41 years after that initial trip, Ridley made the drive for the first time as chairman of Augusta National and the Masters Tournament.
“When I drove down Magnolia Lane yesterday 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 Tuesday during a teleconference. “I’m very grateful to have this opportunity.”
Ridley, 65, is now two days into his role as the seventh chairman in Augusta National’s history. The Lakeland, Fla., native, a lawyer, former USGA president and previous Masters chairman of the competition committees, views his most prestigious job yet as more of a custodial position.
“It’s not something that I own. It’s not something that I possess,” Ridley said. “And that’s because the only legacy that matters here is the legacy of Mr. (Bobby) Jones and Mr. (Clifford) Roberts. They are the ones who established the mandate of constant improvement, which is going to drive me and my goals as chairman of the club, and 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.”
Ridley succeeds Billy Payne, who made a lasting impact in his 11 years as chairman. Payne’s legacy includes grow-the-game initiatives such as the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, Latin America Amateur and Asia-Pacific Amateur, and several changes to Augusta National itself, including a new practice facility and media center.
“I have to say that Billy Payne is the greatest leader I have ever known, and I sincerely thank him for all he’s done to elevate Augusta National,” Ridley said. “He’s done that in such a positive and thoughtful way, and in doing so along the way, has been true to the customs and the principles that I mentioned a minute ago that was established by our founders.”
Ridley has big shoes to fill. But Payne is confident that Ridley is the man for the job. Ridley said the two met several times about Ridley succeeding Payne, and when it came time for Payne to make a decision, Ridley was Payne’s only choice.
“I am now proud to call upon my good friend Fred Ridley to lead Augusta National and the Masters to a future that I am confident will hold new promise, while always being faithful to the principles of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts,” Payne said in August. “Fred will be an excellent chairman who will serve with my complete and enthusiastic support.”
Ridley said he most admired Payne’s ability to form meaningful relationships, not just between he and others, but between Augusta National and the Masters and other organizations. Yet Ridley said the biggest mistake he can make is to try to be like somebody else. Which is why he’s going to be Fred Ridley, not Billy Payne, and adhere to the club’s underlying principles in his own way.
“I go back to the relentless pursuit of perfection and the drive for constant improvement that Mr. Jones and Mr. Roberts mandated,” Ridley said. “When you take that and apply that to where we are today, I assure you that there are many, many opportunities that we have, that Augusta National has today, to make this place even better, whether it’s for the experience of our members, whether it’s for the Masters Tournament and how that tournament is presented to the world. … Certainly we have opportunities to make that better. I think we also have opportunities to do more and continue what Billy has started in connection with growing the game. You know, that certainly was part, I think of the mandate of our founders, but it’s something really that Billy emphasized over the past 10 years, and I think there are a lot more opportunities.
“We’re not going to rest on our laurels, and I’m going to be who I am, but I think you’ll see that there’s lots to do and that will become more apparent in the coming months, and certainly years, under my chairmanship.”
One question posed to Ridley on Tuesday was the golf course and if Ridley had plans any significant changes to it. (Earlier this year, Augusta National purchased land from nearby Augusta Country Club for what is believed to be expansion of the tee on the par-5 13th hole.)
Ridley didn’t address specifics but he did talk about the original design philosophy of Jones and Alister MacKenzie, that strategy and skill were equal components in how the golf course should be played.
“We will take whatever action, whatever course of action is necessary to protect the integrity of Augusta National golf course,” Ridley said.
Back during that first visit to Augusta National in 1976, Ridley met Roberts for the first time. That year ended up being Roberts’ last as chairman (he died a year later), but Ridley remembers the commanding presence a then-82-year-old Roberts had.
“I might say even intimidating for a young guy,” Ridley said. “I was standing out in front of the clubhouse by the big tree where people have gathered for 80 years now, and was really just taking the scenery in. It was the week before the tournament, and I turned around and Mr. Roberts was standing no more than 3 feet from me, and of course it kind of startled me. I thought perhaps maybe I had done something I shouldn’t have.
“But we had a very nice conversation; not a long conversation, but one where he let me know how pleased he was that I was at Augusta National and was competing in the Masters.”
All these years later, Ridley is still at Augusta National. And it’s now his turn to take command.