The most important person in golf right now is not a household name like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, or Rory McIlroy.
It’s Fred Ridley, Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club. In my mind no one is better positioned to help the sport move past what undeniably has been an “annus horribilis,” to quote the late Queen Elizabeth.
Why Fred Ridley? Fred Ridley and the decision-makers at Augusta set the ground rules for who gets to play in The Masters. Unique among golf’s major championships, The Masters is an invitation only event. It’s run by a private club accountable only to its members, not a governing body that represents a broader constituency.
An invitation to play in The Masters is a highly coveted honor for any player. It is a physical invitation that you can hold in your hand, sent the old fashion way. For players under 35 it might be the only piece of snail mail that they’ll ever care about.
The qualifications for competing at The Masters are no secret: past champions, the last five winners of the three other majors, players ranked in the top 50 in the world, etc. Because the rules are well established, ordinarily there is little drama around who will play.
Yet these are not ordinary times in professional golf. The raging feud between the LIV Tour and the PGA has thrown the sport into chaos. Sadly, if the entire debacle has reminded fans of anything it’s that professional golfers care A LOT about how much they make, which to be fair makes them no different than most of us.
But even the most cynical sports fan must acknowledge that winning a major is not about the money for even the most miserly player. Majors matter because they confer something no amount of money can buy – a place in history, immortality. To be a major champion is to attain the highest level of status in the sport, reached only by a select few.
That’s why the green jacket awarded to The Masters winner is considered priceless. It is the most tangible symbol of immortality in the sport.
Which means Fred Ridley has a big say in how golf history will be written.
So, will he change the qualification rules to exclude the LIV players from Augusta in 2023? It’s perhaps the biggest wildcard in this entire mess.
I don’t know Fred Ridley but on some level he must be sorely tempted to do so. He is on record about his displeasure with Greg Norman’s leadership of LIV. As I’ve written before, Norman seems more motivated by long simmering anger and resentments against the PGA than building LIV. For a man who leads a club that so reveres the traditions of golf, Ridley must find Norman’s actions supremely galling. It’s not hard to imagine Ridley wanting to exclude the LIV players if only to screw Norman.
But I seriously doubt Ridley will let whatever anger and resentment he harbors towards Greg Norman influence his thinking. He likely views Norman as a brush fire to be extinguished or a pesky mosquito to be swatted away.
I believe the criteria Ridley will use to make his decision will come down to two things: 1) what’s best for The Masters, and 2) what’s best for the game of golf.
Without question, The Masters tournament is best served by having all the top players in the world compete. Denying highly ranked players who have qualified according to the current criteria, like Cam Smith, Brooks Koepka, and Dustin Johnson, would diminish the field and weaken the tournament. In that light it’s hard to imagine Fred Ridley and the membership making significant changes to the rules.
But The Masters is also about tradition. Augusta National reveres tradition as much as just about any secular institution. It sees The Masters as an annual, global showcase for the enduring, timeless values of the game of golf. Nothing involving LIV this year has helped reinforce the great traditions of the game that Ridley and Augusta National work so hard to preserve. Quite the opposite, the game has been sorely damaged.
This is where I think history is presenting Ridley with a unique opportunity to begin to set things right in the sport. One can make a case that by excluding the LIV players Ridley and Augusta National would be making a statement that there are greater values at stake than the names on the Thursday tee sheet.
Not that my opinion matters, but for what it’s worth if I were Ridley, I would put the game first. I would suspend all LIV players from competing at Augusta for 2023. It wouldn’t be a permanent ban, just a one-year suspension to give Ridley and the club time to fully consider all the issues. Perhaps they can cite LIV’s litigation against the PGA Tour or concerns about the competitive integrity of LIV’s current 54-hole, no cut format. Or they could just say this is what we are doing because we are Augusta National, and we can.
Such a ruling would ignite a total shit storm. Norman would threaten to sue, not that it would do him much good based on earlier court rulings upholding the PGA Tour’s ban of LIV players. The LIV players themselves will be enraged. Some of their anger inevitably will be directed at Norman who boldly assured them that something like this would never happen. They might be afraid that a Masters suspension will embolden the other governing bodies to follow suit for their majors. Whatever they’ve said publicly to the contrary, missing majors is not what the players signed up for.
Undoubtedly it would get the attention of Norman’s masters in Saudi Arabia. Maybe, just maybe, they will see that money can’t buy them everything. If the Saudis are indeed serious about growing the game through another tour, which in theory is not a bad idea if it leads to more great golf for fans to watch, Ridley’s move could prompted them to do what they should have done months ago: dismiss Norman and work constructively with the other governing bodies to find a solution.
Perhaps I’m putting too much on Mr. Ridley and what I’m proposing is unrealistic. Maybe the Saudis won’t care enough and ignore complaints from the players. After all they are getting paid handsomely for so little work.
And there’s no doubt such a radical step would be out of character for a club that prizes history and tradition. Yet even the most conservative leaders in history have not shied away from bold action when circumstances warranted. Ridley could be remembered as a statesman-like figure who brought sanity back to the sport. History rarely offers such chances. I for one hope he takes it.