News & Opinion

Augusta National can't be shortsighted on distance debate

2021 Masters Tournament
Fred Ridley, the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, addresses the media Wednesday before the 85th Masters.

Chairman Fred Ridley places his faith in USGA and R&A to solve distance quandary, but he should focus on club's Masters brand

Hope against hope. That’s what Fred Ridley, the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, espoused in his annual media conference Wednesday on the eve of the first round of the Masters.

The subject, a steady increase in distance, was one that Ridley is hoping eventually will get addressed by golf’s governing bodies, the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A. As the game’s rule makers and distance-control advocates, the USGA and R&A stand philosophically opposed to the PGA Tour and the European Tour, organizations that seem to be comfortable with the limitless march in yardage.

In the middle lies Augusta National, the Masters and Ridley, who called for a “thoughtful solution.”

“I think we are at a crossroads as relates to this issue,” Ridley said last November on the distance issue. “We have always been very supportive of the governing bodies; we will continue to be supportive. We think that it's good that the game of golf is governed by the USGA and the R&A. We think they are great stewards of the game.”

The governing bodies’ stewardship can be questioned on an issue that dates at least to the beginning of the 21st century. They recently have acted more like a dog with a bone: refusing to yield to the equipment manufacturers or major professional tours but trying to find a bipartisan solution.

In November, the governing bodies were deep into putting the finishing touches on their Distance Insights Report, which eventually was released in February to much fanfare. However, they continue to kick the can down the road, with no specific answers but just more requests for data gathering and comments.

That process was to have concluded in early March, but on March 30, the USGA extended the deadline for comments to April 22. 

On Wednesday, Ridley continued to voice support for the governing bodies and hoped that changes to the rules can be made so that Augusta National does not have to stretch the Bobby Jones-Alister MacKenzie masterpiece from its present 7,475 yards to 8,000 or more.

“If there is no action taken, for whatever reason, then we need to look at other options with regard to our golf course and what we can do to continue to challenge these great golfers and maintain the design integrity that was initially adopted by Mr. Jones and Mr. MacKenzie,” Ridley said.

It seems clear that the USGA and R&A are going to take action. If it is not enough for Augusta National, then Ridley will have to defer to what former chairman Hootie Johnson did starting in 2002: lengthening the course yardage from 6,985 to 7,270, and in 2006, stretching it to 7,445, only 30 yards shy of what it will play this week.

The unfortunate issue with change is that the course after 2005 never has played as Jones and MacKenzie designed it. The par-4 10th hole no longer has the speed slot on the right side of the fairway that benefited a properly placed drive, nor does the par-5 15th, which had a similar speed slot.

The course now features a second cut of rough, narrowing the traditionally wide fairways. Additional trees have altered the golf course from its 1933 origination.

The Masters is one of the most profitable operations in all of sports, and Ridley’s job is to protect the franchise. Going into his fourth Masters as chairman, he seems to have been successful, but that can change in an instant.

This week, the roars will come out of Amen Corner, despite limited attendance because of COVID-19 concerns, and the green jacket will be awarded on Sunday night. No one will care should Bryson DeChambeau drive the par-4 seventh hole or need only a wedge into the par-5 13th hole. 

Maybe Ridley should be mindful not to kill the golden goose. Though he supports the governing bodies, he should remember who makes the Masters run. It’s the players, who in a large majority have said they are not concerned with length.

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