Fred Ridley can vividly recall the moment he realized that remaining an amateur golfer was the right decision.
It was during the first round of the 1976 Masters Tournament. Ridley, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, was in the traditional pairing at Augusta National Golf Club with defending champion Jack Nicklaus.
Ridley had held his own with the Golden Bear, a five-time Masters winner, early on. But when they exchanged handshakes on the 18th green, Nicklaus had shot 5-under-par 67 and Ridley had carded 5-over 77.
His ah-ha moment?
“It might have been when I walked off the ninth tee with Jack Nicklaus in the first round of the Masters, tied with him at 1-under, and he beat me by 10 shots,” Ridley said with a laugh. “That might have been one of them.”
For Ridley, who was elected chairman of Augusta National and the Masters last summer, it was another affirmation that he had made the right choice. And in the four decades since, the career amateur has enjoyed the gentleman’s game without the rigors of chasing a professional career. He is the first chairman to have played in the Masters.
He remains the last U.S. Amateur champion who didn’t turn professional. Instead he chose to pursue a career in law, and both of those decisions no doubt would have pleased Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones. He, too, practiced law after his brilliant playing career was over.
“Not to say anything against the golfing abilities of other chairmen, but you’ve got an amateur champion that is chairing the Masters Tournament that was founded by golf’s greatest amateur champion,” said Bob Jones IV, the grandson of Jones. “That’s just poetry. You just don’t get better than that.”
Ridley doesn’t look back on what could have been. He knows he made the right choice.
“I kind of had an inkling when I was a young guy, as a teenager, that I probably was not going to be a golf professional,” Ridley said. “So I did read a lot about (Jones). I think what struck me even more than his amazing playing record was the way he lived his life and the integrity, character and sportsmanship associated with his persona. That was very inspiring to me.”
FINDING HIS GAME
It’s ironic that Ridley now presides over one of the game’s most private and exclusive clubs. Born in Lakeland, Fla., and raised in Winter Haven, he grew up playing municipal courses.
The youngster had enough talent to earn a spot on the University of Florida golf team in the early 1970s, but his game didn’t flourish there. The Gators won an NCAA championship in 1973 with a powerful lineup that included Andy Bean, Gary Koch, Woody Blackburn and Phil Hancock, but Ridley didn’t crack the starting lineup for the championship tournament.
“My college golf was very mediocre,” he said.
Lessons from Jack Grout, Nicklaus’ longtime instructor, helped Ridley become a better driver in 1974, his senior year at Florida.
“I had a good short game, and the thing he did was he made me a good driver of the ball,” Ridley said. “That was always my Achilles’ heel.”
Ridley enjoyed some success on the national amateur circuit leading into the 1975 U.S. Amateur in Richmond, Va., but he was hardly among the favorites after earning the last spot in the qualifier in Jacksonville, Fla. As a pure match play event then, Ridley had to win eight matches to claim the championship.
After winning his first four matches, Ridley came upon one of the pre-tournament favorites: Curtis Strange. Not only was Strange a local favorite, but he was also one of the top players and the 1974 NCAA individual champion.
“It was one of those times I played well and he didn’t quite play his best, and I won 2 and 1,” Ridley said.
In the quarterfinals, Ridley met Jack Veghte, who was accomplished on the Florida amateur scene. If he won that, Ridley would earn a berth in the Masters because semifinalists were still invited to Augusta.
“I can remember on the 18th hole I had a 3-foot putt to win the match,” Ridley said. “I wasn’t thinking about getting to the semifinals; all I was thinking is if I make this putt I get to go to the Masters. And I missed it.”
Ridley did recover to win the match on the first extra hole, but an even bigger opponent, literally and figuratively, was up next: his Florida teammate, Andy Bean.
In the semifinal match, Ridley held on to beat his more accomplished friend 2 and 1.
“Andy’s a real big guy now, pretty big then, I’m 6-2 and he’s 6-4, and he picked me up by my collar and lifted me up,” Ridley said. “I can’t repeat exactly what he said, but he said you’d better win tomorrow.”
In the 36-hole finale, Ridley faced Keith Fergus of the University of Houston.
“I think I was 6 up early in the afternoon, and I started thinking about what was going to happen, and we went to the 36th hole,” Ridley said. “I won the hole to win 2 up. I think I had 69 in the morning but it wasn’t very pretty in the afternoon. Great memories, and fun to reminisce.”
The victory put Ridley’s name on the Havemeyer Trophy, the same one his idol Jones won a record five times.
Strange won 17 times, including back-to-back U.S. Opens, in his Hall of Fame career. Bean earned 11 PGA Tour wins, and Fergus went on to win a combined six times on the PGA and Champions tours. Yet despite getting past those players, Ridley had a hunch that he wasn’t cut out to be a professional. He was already enrolled in law school at Stetson University.
The decision to remain amateur put Ridley on a path that eventually led him to the chairmanship of Augusta National.
He didn’t quit the game cold turkey while studying law. He still found time to play in the Walker Cup and other amateur events he had earned invitations to thanks to being a U.S. Amateur champion.
“My father, and the dean of the law school, allowed me to take a semester off,” Ridley said. “I played a lot of golf, which was the best thing that happened to me, because I really confirmed that I don’t want to play professionally. I realized how hard it was. I went back to law school that fall really kind of thinking I don’t want to do this.”
In an era when more amateurs were invited to play in the Masters, Ridley did so three consecutive years, from 1976-78. He never made the cut, but he earned a lifetime of memories.
He stayed in the Crow’s Nest, the perch at the top of the clubhouse reserved for amateurs. He played with Sam Snead. And he met Clifford Roberts.
It was 1976, and the longtime Masters chairman was in his final year at the helm. Ridley was making his Augusta National debut, and he had come the week before the tournament. That’s when he had a chance encounter with the chairman underneath the big oak tree behind the clubhouse.
“I don’t remember what I was doing, but I was standing by myself, probably just soaking it all in,” Ridley recalled. “And I turned around and there was Clifford Roberts. I thought I’ve done something wrong, I was ready to be lectured. But we had the nicest conversation, and I remember he was very polite, very kind.
“As we were finishing up, he said, ‘Son,’ and he pointed over to the Par-3 Course, ‘You’re going to play over there next Wednesday. I want you to get a few rounds in before the Par-3 Contest.’ That didn’t have a lot of meaning to me at the time, but I now know that that was a really special place for him. He loved the Par-3. I do have that recollection, which is pretty special.”
MAKING A NAME IN AUGUSTA
Ridley’s law career flourished, and so did his position in amateur golf.
He is currently a partner and national chair of the real estate practice for international law firm Foley & Lardner LLP in Tampa, Fla.
Ridley remained active in amateur golf, and he served as captain of the 1987 and 1989 U.S. Walker Cup teams and the 2010 U.S. World Amateur Team.
He was a member of the USGA Executive Committee from 1994 to 2005 and was elected president of the USGA for 2004-05.
But Ridley, who joined Augusta National in 2000 and took over as chairman of the tournament’s Competition Committee in 2007, said he hasn’t been an active past president of the USGA.
“I guess I would say my jacket’s been green for some time now,” he said.
At Augusta, Ridley became part of Chairman Billy Payne’s inner circle and in his role as chairman of the Competition Committee made an annual appearance on the dais next to the chairman during his “State of the Masters” address.
It was in that role that Ridley faced perhaps his greatest challenge. At the 2013 Masters, a rules controversy involving Tiger Woods put Ridley in the spotlight.
In the second round, Woods’ ball hit the flagstick and caromed into the pond at the 15th hole. Woods took a drop later deemed improper, and was assessed a two-stroke penalty before the third round began. Ridley used his discretion and decided not to disqualify Woods for signing an incorrect scorecard because the committee had initially deemed his drop legal after reviewing visual evidence and never discussed it with Woods before he signed his card.
Social media howled for Woods’ disqualification. Further muddying the water was the fact that the ruling involved Woods, a four-time Masters champion.
Ridley now characterizes the ruling as “complicated” but said he was “very comfortable in the end result that we did the right thing.”
Barely two weeks after the Woods controversy, the USGA and the R&A issued a joint statement that explained the ruling and, in effect, backed up the decision by Ridley and the Masters committee.
“Given the unusual combination of facts – as well as the fact that nothing in the existing Rules or Decisions specifically addressed such circumstances of simultaneous competitor error and Committee error – the Committee reasonably exercised its discretion,” the statement said.
Nearly five years later, Ridley stands firm in his belief that he made the right call.
“I think people that understood what happened agree with (the decision),” he said. “At the end of the day, if you do the right thing, everything’s going to be fine. That’s really how I feel about it.”
TAKING THE REINS
The list of accomplishments during Payne’s tenure is exhaustive.
Grow the game by creating new amateur events and embracing a kid-friendly event that allows them to participate on the grounds of Augusta National? Check.
Increase digital offerings and make the Par-3 Contest a televised event to show how cool golf can be? Check.
Move the club and tournament into the 21st century with the addition of female members and numerous improvements to the club’s infrastructure? Check.
“There’s a lot of physical evidence of what he’s accomplished in his tenure here,” Ridley said. “He has expanded our campus in a way you couldn’t imagine when he took over.”
But there’s still plenty left for Ridley to accomplish.
The biggest area left untouched by Payne is Augusta National’s venerable layout. The mandate for Ridley is to keep the Jones-MacKenzie masterpiece, now close to 90 years old, relevant in an age when modern-day professionals are hitting the golf ball farther than ever before.
“That is something I do know a little bit about,” Ridley said last fall. “The process is we take a hard look at the golf course every year.”
Ridley’s first big course project as chairman could come right after this year’s Masters. Preliminary plans filed by Augusta National in January show renovations to the par-4 fifth hole, with the work tentatively scheduled to begin in May.
Thanks to a project completed during Payne’s watch — the realignment of Berckmans Road — Augusta National now controls the former road that had landlocked the club’s western border.
“Old Berckmans Road certainly gives us some opportunities and options, and we are looking at those,” Ridley said.
Plans call for the tournament tee box to be relocated across the old road, which will free up the logjam at the fourth green and fifth tee. Old Berckmans Road would then be rerouted around the new tee box, according to the site plans.
Site plans also have been filed by Augusta National to begin work this spring at neighboring Augusta Country Club. In 2017, Augusta National acquired land from Augusta Country Club near Rae’s Creek at the section of holes Nos. 11, 12 and 13 known as Amen Corner.
According to the plans, the new ninth hole at Augusta Country Club would become a dogleg right hole and two tee boxes for the hole would be located across Rae’s Creek. A new green complex for the eighth hole would shift the green to the right of its present location and be located closer to Rae’s Creek.
No work is indicated for Augusta National’s holes, but the purchase of land will give the home of the Masters more access for maintenance and tournament infrastructure along its perimeter at that part of the course.
Steve Melnyk, a former U.S. Amateur and British Amateur champion who played in five Masters, thinks Ridley’s experience as a competitive golfer will be a plus.
“I think that will be beneficial in many ways. I think Fred will bring a fresh set of eyes,” Melnyk said. “With Fred you’ve got a chance to make the course better. Not necessarily harder, but better in subtle ways.”
'PERFECT FOR IT'
Ridley defies the mold of Roberts and the men who came after him as chairman.
How many Augusta National chairmen can boast of a double eagle at the 15th hole, just as Gene Sarazen did on his way to winning the 1935 Masters?
And how many chairmen had such a perfect head of hair that a hashtag was devoted to it?
Ridley can check both of those boxes.
He might be showing a touch of gray at the temples, but Ridley can pass for much younger than his actual age of 65. He and his wife, Betsy, have been married for 40 years, and they have three daughters: Maggie, Libby and Sydney.
The Ridleys became grandparents earlier this year when Libby gave birth to a boy.
In his new office at Augusta National, photos of his family are prominently displayed. He’s especially proud of one showing Sergio Garcia celebrating his breakthrough victory at last year’s Masters. In the background, two of Ridley’s daughters can be seen.
For the Ridleys, golf is a family affair.
“Our honeymoon was made up of me playing in Eastern Amateur and then the Walker Cup matches and the U.S. Amateur,” Ridley said with a laugh. “She knew what she was getting herself into. She’s been around golf a long time. So have our girls, they all play.”
A photo on social media shows the Ridleys with their three daughters standing on Hogan Bridge with Augusta National’s 12th hole in the background. According to "Golf Digest," the chairman gets in a couple dozen rounds each year at the club. His ringer score is impressive with the double eagle, a handful of eagles and a hole-in-one at the 16th.
His youngest daughter, Sydney, likes to tease him about his hair on social media and tags photos with #Fredshair.
“Fortunately, I’ve kept it all,” Ridley said of his hair.
Ridley takes it all in stride, which fits perfectly with his good-guy image.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone to say something negative,” said Melnyk, a longtime friend. “He rarely raises his voice. He’s a logical thinker.
“Given the prominence of the 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.”
Payne and his inner circle agree.
“My connection to the chairmanship resides within Fred and his performance over the next several years,” Payne said. “I know it’s going to be outstanding. He’s an even finer man than he was a player.”
An Augusta National member close to both Payne and Ridley agreed, saying Ridley is “well versed in the challenges the club faces” and he’s the “right guy to continue” the work started by Payne.
“I don’t think he’s going to make wholesale changes,” the member said. “He’ll be his own man.”
Ridley will forge his own path in the coming years, but all roads at Augusta National eventually lead back to the legacy created by Jones and Roberts. Ridley said he views his role as a custodian.
“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, 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,” Ridley said. “That’s my goal, and that’s what I think Mr. Jones and Mr. Roberts would expect.”