News & Opinion

Ridley calls for unity in distance debate

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The distance debate made its way inside the gates of Augusta National Golf Club on Wednesday in chairman Fred Ridley’s inaugural address to the media.

Ridley, 65, the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion who played in three Masters in 1976-78, discussed the evolving nature of Augusta National versus the ongoing developments of the game. Ridley, a former U.S. Golf Association president, is intent on protecting the shot values of original designers Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie.

“We continue to closely monitor how distances produced by today's players affect our golf course,” said Ridley, clearly in response to the joint USGA/R&A distance report last month that suggested the ball is crossing a supposed red line. “Thankfully, we do have options, and further change may come after proper deliberation. But we do not think that additional length should be the immediate or only reaction to what we continue to observe in the Masters.”

In what seemed to be a direct response to Tiger Woods’ continual assault on Augusta National, the course was lengthened by 285 yards in 2002, from 6,985 yards to 7,270 yards, before changes in 2006 stretched the layout to its current 7,445 yards.

Other changes during that era included adding a slight rough, known in Augusta vernacular as the “second cut,” additional pine trees that tightened the driving corridors of some holes and the elimination of certain areas on the course that acted as speed slots and provided additional distance off the tee.

Later, Ridley, in responding to questions about the distance issue, expanded upon his original distance comments, specifically in discussing Augusta National.

“There's a great quote from Bobby Jones dealing specifically with the 13th hole, which has been lengthened over time, and he said that the decision to go for the green in two should be a momentous one. And I would have to say that our observations of these great players hitting middle and even short irons into that hole is not a momentous decision,” Ridley said. “And so, we think there is an issue – not only there, but in the game generally – that needs to be addressed. The ultimate decision is going to be, I'm confident, a collective one. It's going to be one where all of the stakeholders sit down and come to some agreement.”

In 1939, the par-5 13th hole played 480 yards, only 30 yards shorter than the current 510 yards it has played since being lengthened before the 2002 Masters.

What Ridley failed to mention was that Augusta National recently acquired land from neighboring Augusta Country Club that would allow for expansion of the 13th hole.

Yet, with more than enough land available to expand the course on many holes, Ridley seems more concerned with how golf’s leaders will address the distance issue amicably.

“My hope is that every organization, every stakeholder involved will look at this issue from a holistic basis and not only what might be in the best interests of their own organization,” Ridley said. “We fully appreciate and do not want any action to be taken that's going to make golf harder. We have an obligation to grow the game, and so we're sensitive to that. So, these issues don't always coincide. And like any difficult question, it requires compromise and debate. 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.”

Ridley appears to want to be an intermediary between the R&A, USGA, major professional tours, various associations and many manufacturers with vested interests in the issue. From past comments, they do not support changing the rules to roll back the golf ball or any type of significant rules bifurcation between amateurs and professionals.

The next step is unclear, but Ridley would seem to hold substantial political capital should he choose to make a difference.

“The chairmanship of Augusta National certainly gives him a unique place in the game,” said Jim Hyler, a former USGA president who was named this week as Ridley’s replacement as the chairman of Augusta National’s Competition Committee. “And I think, as he just talked about in terms of the distance issue, that he will want to work to bring people together to talk through these issues. We're not a governing body; that's the USGA and the R&A. But we have an obligation to be, I think, at the table and talking, but in a collaborative way.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli