AUGUSTA, Ga. — When Fred Ridley, the new Augusta National chairman, was done with his press conference, right around high noon today, there were two women hanging around, talking to reporters in little scrums, two women that need no introduction: Condoleezza Rice, in her tailored members’ green jacket, and Annika Sorenstam, dressed for play and in fighting trim. Wednesday was women’s day at Augusta National. A half-hour earlier, Ridley had announced a new event for the club that was famously a bastion of male golfing activity. Starting next year, on the Saturday before Masters Saturday, the club will play host to the final round of a 54-hole stroke play event called the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Do you know how many girls and women will be exposed to golf through this event? Millions.
Fred Ridley, the father of three grown daughters — “they’re not very good players, but they love the game” — has started his chairmanship on the best possible note. Augusta National, as a club, and the Masters, as a tournament, has stood for different things at different times. In its early years, under Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, the club and its spring invitational were all about camaraderie among top amateur and professional players. Hootie Johnson changed, fundamentally, how the course played. In the Billy Payne tenure, the club took “patron hospitality,” and player creature comforts, to a level previously unimagined. The announcement of this women’s event, even though it will mean turning the club over for only one day and only to 30 or so elite women players, is a major contribution to the club’s existing grow-the-game efforts.
The first 36 holes of the event, with a 72-person field, will be played down the street at Champions Retreat. The event will be televised. Third-round tickets — the third act, set at Augusta National — will be distributed through a lottery system. The winner will not likely get a green jacket but will get a “distinctive award,” Ridley said.
What will it be?
“We got to work on that,” he said, with a welcome informality that the new chairman is wholly capable of.
Sorenstam and Rice talked about what the event might mean for girls, and just the fact that these two remarkable and accomplished women were there, speaking at all, told you that the Ridley era is likely to be less formal — less hidebound — than the Payne years were. More to the point, the game evolves, as all things do, but the evolution of institutions begins with inspired leadership, and this regard Ridley is off to an excellent start. Ridley said the club, which now has a handful of women members, will get more. Augusta National doesn’t pretend to be a democratic institution, and doesn’t need to be. It’s a private club that opens its doors one week a year (and derives great benefit from it). But what it must to do is serve the game well. Ridley, a former USGA president, has already demonstrated a keen grasp of that.
Augusta National has two former secretaries of state as members, Rice and Rex Tillerson. All the members who come to the Masters are given jobs. I’ve seen Rice as a greeter at the Berckmans Place entertainment complex — talk about your Southern hospitality! — and Tillerson working the driving range, observing ball distribution to the players. It used to be that if you were a member of Augusta National and suddenly found yourself running for national office or being nominated for a cabinet post, the first thing you had to do was resign from the club, because the club’s membership practices made for a bad public look.
That’s no longer the case. No member has to run from her or his membership anymore. Quite the contrary. And starting next year, a member can say, “We’re the club that has that women’s amateur event you’ve see on TV.” It was Payne who first brought women members into the club. It evolves slowly, but it evolves.
Ridley is 65 and steeped, as much as a person can be, in the game. I have the hope he can be a real agent of change for golf. He takes a great deal of inspiration from the time-tested writing of the club’s co-founder, Bobby Jones, and he noted on Wednesday that Jones, speaking of the club’s iconic par-5 13th hole, said the decision to go for the green with a second shot should be “momentous.” And that it’s not momentous when the longest players are playing it with a driver and a 9-iron. So that leaves two options: making the hole much longer, or reducing the distance elite players hit the ball.
I’ve reduced this discussion to an examination of one hole and how it plays for about 70 players in a one four-day event. The real scope of the issue is far more complex, and far broader. Ridley understands that, as does anybody who takes a broad view of the game. What Ridley said about the issue of ball flight is nuanced and boring and correct: So as long as we’re all talking to one another and looking out for what’s in the best interest of the game, I’m confident that there’s going to be a solution that’s going to work for everyone.” By we he means all the stakeholders, not Augusta National working in isolation.
Deep within that sentence is the admission that there’s a problem and that it needs a solution. Deep within Ridley’s announcement of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur is the recognition that the game can grow and that opening the doors of his club, even for one extra day, can be hugely important. The new chairman revealed himself on Wednesday to be an original and bold thinker. How cool is that?
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]