At Augusta National, Fred Ridley's messages are clear

At Augusta National, Fred Ridley’s messages are clear

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Pedants will tell you that Augusta National is a property, not a governing body, a depthless observation that is equally true of the White House, Downing Street and the Élysée Palace. Augusta National is golf’s real seat of power, not only in the public imagination but in its ability to set priorities and effect change. This is why the closest thing our sport has to a State of the Union address comes Wednesday of Masters Week, when the club’s sitting chairman offers prepared remarks to the media before fielding questions on pressing issues in the game.

The chairman’s scripted remarks are dependably careful, highlighting good deeds outside the walls of the club and minor changes within. Against that tradition, Fred Ridley’s comments were unconventional in that he raised a thorny topic before the assembled press did: that of distance.

In his State of the Union at the 2020 Masters, Ridley’s language on this subject had bordered on strident for a man occupying his position. He said golf is “at a crossroads,” and “coming closer to a call to action.” When the chairman of Augusta National hints that a call to action is imminent, it means that the call has already been privately issued to those who needed to hear it in golf’s corridors of power. In this case, that means the USGA and R&A, whose joint Distance Insights project was delayed by the pandemic but recently resurrected with the announcement of further investigation and feedback in specific areas.

Unsolicited, Ridley addressed himself to the issue.

“We recognize this is an intricate topic that won’t result in solutions overnight, and we support the level of consideration displayed by the governing bodies throughout this process,” he said. “We look forward to further discussions during the comment period this summer as well as future recommendations and ultimately implementation.”

Ultimately.

Implementation.

Two words that communicate an expectation for decisive action when the talking is over. In the careful nomenclature of Augusta National, that constitutes a reminder that Chairman Ridley is a patient man, but that patience ain’t bottomless.

“I’m very committed to the objectives and design philosophies of our founder, co-founder, Bobby Jones and Dr. MacKenzie, ”he continued, a gospel preached by all of his predecessors. There are many critics who believe the design principles of Jones and MacKenzie have been compromised by the distance modern golf balls travel, so Ridley’s reiteration of the dogma won’t have gone unnoticed by those responsible for regulating such matters, in particular Mike Whan and Martin Slumbers, both of whom are on-site this week.

However predictable the chairman’s scripted remarks may be, his (always his) answers to media questions are feverishly parsed for meaning.

Ridley was quickly asked about the elephant not in the room at Augusta National: Phil Mickelson. The three-time Masters champion went to ground after comments emerged in which he embraced the Saudi regime trying to launch a rival professional tour and casually dismissed its human rights atrocities because doing so afforded him leverage over the PGA Tour. Mickelson’s absence led to speculation that Augusta National had suggested he stay home, which Ridley dismissed.

“I would like to say we did not disinvite Phil. Phil is a three-time Masters Champion and is invited in that category and many other categories, ”he said.

Which is true, as far as it goes. Angel Cabrera is also a Masters champion who isn’t here. Cabrera cannot compete since he’s currently incarcerated in Argentina, but his management team — which has in the past received his Masters invitation — didn’t get one this year. It may have been sent to his unoccupied home, of course, but the team did not receive an invitation last year either. If that one went to the wrong address, the Masters has not sought clarity on where it should be sent.

The situations of Messrs. Mickelson and Cabrera could one day have a tangential bearing on each other.

Asked how the Masters would look upon players who sign with a Saudi-financed breakaway circuit, Ridley signaled his support for the existing ecosystem.

“I would start by saying that our mission is always to act in the best interests of the game in whatever form that may take. I think golf’s in a good place right now. There’s more participation. Purses on the professional tours are the highest they have ever been, ”he said, the latter point sure to warm the cockles of Jay Monahan’s heart while providing Saudi frontman Greg Norman yet another Augusta disappointment, albeit on a Wednesday instead of the customary Sunday.

“We have been pretty clear in our belief that the world tours have done a great job in promoting the game over the years,” he added. “Beyond that, there’s so much that we don’t know about what might happen or could happen that I just don’t think I could say much more beyond that.”

On paper, a non-answer. In reality, rowing in behind the status quo. In the language of schoolyard scuffles, Ridley was telling players thinking of crossing that rubicon, “Try me, and you’ll find out.”

Hence the potential connection between the two MIA former champions.

Mickelson chose to absent himself from the 86th Masters. Cabrera can’t play, obviously, but it appears he didn’t even receive the courtesy of an invitation from a tournament that famously prides itself on courtesies toward its past champions. Which would then set an intriguing precedent of the Masters not extending an invitation to a former winner due to behavior deemed inconsistent with its values.

There may come a day when such conduct unbecoming includes willingly being a stooge for a murderous regime bent on using golf to sportswash its depredations. None of the 91 competitors in the field this week has yet publicly put himself in the position of testing Augusta National’s tolerance on that. There’s a fair chance that by the time of the 87th Masters Tournament, some player will do so. If that unknown soldier for the Saudis was looking for a sign that he will still be welcomed at Augusta National, Fred Ridley made sure he did not provide one.

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