It is often said, in certain golf circles, that Robert Rock and Brandel Chamblee have the two best heads of hair on the men's side, but often overlooked in this discussion is Fred Ridley, who began a new job on Monday, as the chairman of Augusta National and its mid-April invitational tournament, the Masters. Fred turned 65 in August, but you'd never guess it. He reads young.
Maybe that's why my instinct is to call him "Fred." I don't see people naturally using "Mr. Chairman," as some reporters, club guests and members did with Ridley's predecessor, William Porter (Billy) Payne. Fred went to the public high school in rural Winter Haven, Fla., played some golf at the University of Florida, got a law degree from Stetson, also in Florida, at 25. Nobody was expecting Ridley to beat Keith Fergus, a University of Houston star, in the final of the 1975 U.S. Amateur, but he did. That made all the difference. It paved the way for him to play in the Masters three times, to meet Cliff Roberts, to get a foothold in the USGA. He became its president in 2004. I used to have a boss who would ask, "Is this guy of golf?" This guy is golf.
The easy move is to say that Payne, as chairman of the club and tournament, was a businessman—a business visionary, really—and that Ridley will focus on the golf course and the competition. He will, but he'll do more than that. There are so many large-scale projects that Payne began that will continue on Ridley's leadership, with the considerable help of the paid professionals Payne brought in as the club was thoroughly modernized.
Could the day be coming when there's a hotel for players across Washington Road from the club's entrance, with a tunnel to the practice range? Of course there could be. It's Augusta National! If you had all the taste, ambition and vision that Payne had—and vast sums of money—you could have created Berkmans Place, rerouted Berkmans Road and built that Tara-like press building, too. Ridley has a laundry list, some of it known, much of it not.
This will sound weird, but if the club and the tournament have a problem, it's that it is almost too perfect, or trending that way, anyhow. You can readily find spectators, members, guests, employees, reporters and CBS executives who are nothing but nervous upon entering the club's gates. It's a natural reaction, in the face of such perfection. But my guess it's not what Roberts and Bobby Jones, who started it all, wanted. As the designer Rees Jones likes to say, "Scruffiness is a traditional golfing value." It is at Bandon Dunes and St. Andrews and the National Golf Links. Augusta National is not going to go brown here, and it shouldn't. (The club and the tournament are all about spring.) What we're talking about here is a mindset. One of the best things about the Masters is the unpredictability of the weather, the leaderboard and what the players do on Sunday afternoon.
With some of that in mind, and with the first round of the next Masters only 170 days away, here's a collective Wish List for the new chairman:
I. Give the place a little breathing room
We're not talking about the cellphone police—they're necessary, to keep the Masters phone-free, as it should be. But when a 19-year-old kid working the tournament has the automatic response to say to a spectator buying a hat, "We can't talk about that," it's time to lighten things up. Members and the heads of the different tournament committees should be allowed to talk about their work. It would improve our appreciation for the event.
II. In the Butler Cabin post-tournament interview, let the winner put his feet up!
The guy's been on them all day. Let him sit down with Jim Nantz for a solid 10 minutes and dissect key shots, reflect on his thought process and conversations, what the win means. Those 10 minutes will captivate and possibly inspire millions. Get the caddie in there, too. It will relax the winner and the caddie's presence will encourage him to go deeper.
III. Let the honorary starters—Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, last year—play nine holes
And if Jack and Gary don't want to do it—a guess is that Gary would!—have anybody who has won multiple coats go off with them to play nine. (Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd—Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, someday!) No sport, not even baseball, honors its past better than golf. This would help.
IV. Cut down a thousand trees
Tiger will tie ribbons around the ones that have robbed the course of its freewheeling off-the-tee spirit.
V. Turn the so-called first cut into fairway
It was an experiment. Nothing wrong with that. It diminished the look of the course and changed very little about how it is played. Part of the essential beauty of the course was its visual breadth. Eliminating the rough and many of the trees would restore the I-can-breathe! quality you may remember from your mid-1970s appearances, in the Last Days of Roberts.
VI. Leave the course be
Enough with the lengthening. If you think they hit the ball too far, give them a limited-flight ball to play with. Don't take it out on the course. It doesn't matter if 13 is called a par-5 or a par-4. It's one of the most spectacular holes in the world, exactly as it is today. We would urge you to leave it.
VII. Institute a Masters writing contest
The Drive, Chip & Putt competition is a fine addition to Mastersweek. (Please do not trademark Mastersweek, one word. Just let people use if they're so inclined.) But how about another competition to bring in young people: the Masters Essay Writing Contest for Young People. Open to people the world over, 18 or younger. In 500 words or less, handwritten and mailed to the club, the contestants will write a short essay on the following subject: Why I like golf. The 18 winners will be able to come to the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday practice rounds with their parents.
VIII. Return the Durkee Famous Sauce to the clubhouse tables during the tournament
Somewhere, Arnold will be smiling.
IX. Keep the Masters Theme Song, the CBS springtime perennial, no matter what the young people say they think of it in focus groups
It's treacly and vaguely funereal. But it's like the smell of popcorn upon entering the movie house. It gets you in the mood.