Augusta National holds a four-day tournament with an identity and history strong enough to reverberate throughout the world of golf and sports. The success of that tournament has elevated the club to such a position of power and prominence that when its chairman speaks on matters related to the Masters and beyond, the rest of the game takes notice.

During his annual press conference on Wednesday, current chairman Fred Ridley was pronounced in calling out the larger responsibility of ANGC and the Masters. “One of the key parts of the mission of the club is to serve the game of golf,” he said. He used the phrase twice in a matter of seconds in response to a query about both kids and women amateurs now having a platform ahead the Masters for two related competitions of their own. 

Andy Johnson and Brendan Porath were on hand for his press conference and they sat down together to reflect on some of the larger themes coming out of it. The game faces several problems and fractures right now, and Ridley offered commentary throughout his availability on these bigger subjects that impact both the larger game and the club’s tournament.

A Strained Vision

By Andy Johnson

Throughout Chairman Fred Ridley’s tenure leading Augusta National, he has evangelized the original vision of architect Alister MacKenzie and founder Bobby Jones when it comes to the course itself. This has led to a shift in the club’s general approach to the golf course, but one thing that continues to work against that vision is the club’s attempt to present a “test” for the world’s very best players every year. On Wednesday, Ridley stated with regards to lengthening the second hole “Each year we look for ways to improve the golf course, to ensure it continues to challenge the best players in the world.” In addition to the second, significant work was done to the back of the sixth green to penalize shots that are a touch long of the back right hole location. These changes are geared toward presenting a championship test, but they also cut right against the architectural and artistic vision of Alister MacKenzie. Between the angle and a non-original bunker that forces a specific line, No. 2 now features a drastically different tee shot than the one originally envisioned by MacKenzie. The current iteration works in opposition to his theory that long holes should offer multiple routes for players of different abilities and dispositions.

On the sixth, the addition of the chipping area also conflicts with MacKenzie’s vision for shaping golf features. He believed that manufactured elements should blend in seamlessly with their surroundings in the manner of camouflaged military fortifications. As he put it in his book Golf Architecture, “Successful golf-course construction and successful camouflage are almost entirely due to utilization of natural features to the fullest extent and to the construction of artificial ones indistinguishable from nature.” The new shaping on the sixth hole is easy to distinguish from nature. In his press conference, Rory McIlroy described it as “sharp,” an adjective that surely would have made MacKenzie cringe. 

The changes to No. 6 undoubtedly create a more defined challenge. Players who fail to pull off the heroic attempt at the back-right hole location will be punished. But it’s also undoubtedly a departure from the original vision centered around the ideals of the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Technology remains the elephant in the room. In a world that enables modern tour professionals to hit the ball farther and straighter than ever, it’s harder and harder for historical integrity to coexist with a championship test of golf. 

Unequivocal Support, if Not Enthusiasm, for the Rollback

By Brendan Porath

Fred Ridley is keenly aware of that conundrum. That only became more apparent when, during his annual Masters Wednesday press conference, he offered Augusta National’s strongest support yet for a rollback on hitting distances in golf, especially at the professional level. In prior years, this support was more implicit, or merely hinted at. Concerns were stated. Commitments to “monitor” the studies of the governing bodies were offered. Distance was understood to be a problem. 

But with the USGA and R&A proposal now out in the open, Ridley’s support was unequivocal.

“For almost 70 years, the Masters was played at just over 6,900 yards,” said Ridley as part of his opening remarks. “Today the course measures 7,550 yards from the markers, and we may well play one of the tournament rounds this year at more than 7,600 yards. I’ve said in the past that I hope we will not play the Masters at 8,000 yards. But that is likely to happen in the not too distant future under current standards. Accordingly, we support the decisions that have been made by the R&A and the USGA as they have addressed the impact of distance at all levels of the game.”

The support was emphatic. His enthusiasm for how far the governing bodies went in their updated standards, though, was less so. Pressed on this subject by Geoff Shackelford, he used the phrase “other aspects of technology that are within the rules” that could allow manufacturers to quickly recover any distance lost after a rollback of the golf ball. Reading between the lines, this would suggest a desire to take a closer look at the driver face and other equipment. 

Beyond the boost for the rollback proposal, Chairman Ridley also seemed uninterested in any persisting debate on the need for such measures. He warned against any further split between the various stakeholders who might seek to push back on the governing bodies. 

“Assuming that these regulations are adopted by the PGA Tour and the other tours, and I certainly hope they will be; I think were they not adopted it would cause a great deal of stress in the game, which it doesn’t need right now,” he added. Ridley’s not telling another organization what to do. But he has his platform and plenty of power to speak on the overall “game of golf”, and clearly thinks any split on the adoption of a rollback would be highly detrimental to that game. Which brings us to…

LIV vs. PGA Tour: Figure It Out, Guys

By Brendan Porath

…another debate in the game that Ridley seems over entertaining. He did not want to speculate on the drop in TV ratings being due to a split product, but he wasn’t exactly reticent about adding his own ponderings on the matter. 

“I will acknowledge that, if you look at the data this year, golf viewers are down on linear television while other sports, some other sports are up,” he said. “So you can draw your own conclusions. Certainly the fact that the best players in the world are not convening very often is not helpful. Whether or not there’s a direct causal effect, I don’t know. But I think that it would be a lot better if they were together more often.”

It is a message not just to LIV and its defectors, but the Tour, its board members, and rank-and-file players. This is a tournament that cares about its product and excels at delivering the most popular event in the game. It knows how to do this, and the club’s chairman is going on the record that the current state of affairs is harmful to the game of golf. That’s not a new sentiment or an extreme take, as players and executives on all sides seem to now understand this danger. Original or not, though, this is still one of the most powerful voices in golf adding to the chorus. Ideally this helps add to the urgency to work through hard feelings and make some tough decisions.

“The best players in the world are together once again,” he added in his opening remarks. “The best golf has to offer is on center stage. That is good for everyone, certainly players, but also our partners, volunteers, the Augusta community, and its many local charities, and especially our patrons and fans around the world. As solutions are pursued to bridge the current divide in men’s professional golf, I hope there will be a focus on these and the other stakeholders who are the fabric of tournament golf, all of whom represent the values and virtues of the game.”

This may require the Tour’s board to be the bigger men and craft the unification strategy. Ridley certainly did not seem to indulge LIV, as currently constituted, earning OWGR points. He was clear to use the word “legitimate” when outlining the OWGR as a determiner of who the best players in the game are. The “closed shop” nature of LIV, a term he used, seems to be an issue that cannot be reconciled for OWGR points right now. 

But this subject, and the rollback as well, are much larger matters that go beyond the property of Augusta National. The club’s position in the game often requires it to comment on these larger issues. Based on today, though, it seems like Ridley would rather not have to comment on these disputes anymore. He just wants them resolved.

Scarcity and Product Are Paramount

By Andy Johnson

Ridley’s answer to a question on the potential for a professional women’s event at Augusta National exemplified the club’s guiding philosophy, one that has made them so successful over the past nine decades. He admitted to having put thought towards such an event, but then laid out what makes it a difficult addition to their slate. “To have another tournament of any kind would be very difficult based on our season, based on the fact that this is essentially a winter and spring golf course. It doesn’t — it’s not open in the summer. It doesn’t play the way we want it to play in the fall for a major tournament. We did have one, one time, and Dustin Johnson did very well.”

This statement suggests Augusta National won’t host an event without being able to put the very best version of the course, and therefore the very best product, on display. 

Later in his answer, Ridley hit on the other key tenant of the tournament’s success: scarcity. “And, you know, we need to make sure that we really respect the mystique and the magic of the Masters. So we would have to think long and hard about another golf tournament.”

The Masters and Augusta National are special in large part because we don’t get to see them all the time. The Green Jackets hold everything back with the exception of two weeks per year, when they host the ANWA and the Masters. Then they go away. This scarcity creates 50 weeks of anticipation and excitement for when they open their doors again. This is why there’s buzz when that first Masters ad pops up every winter on CBS. The absence allows the Masters to be missed. It’s a powerful approach in a society where people can usually get whatever they want, whenever they want it.

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