Fore, please! Augusta National is becoming the most progressive force in golf

It’s appropriate in a year that has forced so many painful reckonings—with work, life and loss amid a pandemic, with the national character in an election—that even the most immutable bulwark of ‘em all should not emerge unchanged.

Augusta National Golf Club isn’t quickly bent to the public mood. A 2002 controversy over its lack of women members—and the brusque dismissal of that criticism by a drawling Southerner named Hootie—served only to cement the club’s reputation as a bastion of everything wrong with golf. Ten years elapsed between Martha Burk’s campaign and the club admitting women, but then a decade is equivalent to a decaminute on the clocks in Augusta National’s clubhouse.

By comparison, the latest sign of progress at the citadel of American golf arrived at warp speed and not at the point of a bayonet. This was the week when a famously hidebound organization became arguably the most progressive force in golf, which is admittedly not a competitive category.

Augusta National has long been a force for positive change under the rubric of “growing the game.” It helped create the Asia-Pacific Amateur and Latin America Amateur championships and drew kids into the sport via Drive, Chip and Putt. The establishment in 2019 of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur generated more exposure for the women’s amateur game in one day than generations of national championships. But those were all safe and noble causes.

This week was a reckoning much closer to home.

On Monday, Chairman Fred Ridley announced that Lee Elder will join Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player at the ceremonial opening tee shot at the 85th Masters Tournament next April, hopefully before a gallery of patrons. Elder was the first Black man to compete in the Masters in 1975. Augusta National, which did not admit its first Black member until 1990, will also fund two golf scholarships in Elder’s name at Paine College, a historically Black university in Augusta, and help start a women’s golf program there.

Two days later, in an announcement that exists somewhere between philanthropy and reparations, the club and its corporate partners gifted $10 million to help regenerate two impoverished urban neighborhoods in Augusta.

The honoring of Elder is a telling moment for a club that isn’t prone to ruminating on the less glorious aspects of its past. It is more than a nod to the national movement against systemic racial injustice, more than a dutiful acknowledgement that golf is not as welcoming of minorities as it ought to be. It’s a mea culpa for the Masters and Augusta National itself, an admission that while past wrongs can’t be righted—least of all for the late Charlie Sifford, whose accomplishments won him the Presidential Medal of Freedom but never an invitation to compete at the Masters—they can at least be reconciled.

“Our question was not so much what we can say but what we can do,” Ridley said by way of explaining Augusta’s desire to contribute to the national conversation on race.

Turns out, when you’re the chairman of an organization with almost unlimited resources and influence you can do rather a lot.

Ridley is as bronzed a member of the golf establishment as it’s possible to get. A former winner of the U.S. Amateur who never soiled himself by joining the professional ranks, a former president of the USGA, he became Augusta’s chairman in 2017. He speaks with a papal calm, reflecting the confidence of a leader who knows no desk need be thumped nor voice raised because his word is law. He is acutely aware that his club sets a tone for the sport, that when Augusta National acts, others notice. He understands how this week’s gestures might be dismissed as mere symbolism by naysayers, but knows too that symbolism actually matters, especially to those long excluded from golf’s more elite precincts.

Actions matter. Words do too. Which is why Ridley’s comments on a more trivial issue—the game’s fractious distance debate—are also worthy of note. “I think we are at a crossroads as relates to this issue,” he said. “I do think that we’re coming closer to a call to action.”

Those words were aimed at a constituency of two: Mike Davis of the USGA and Martin Slumbers of the R&A, the men heading the organizations that will decide the next steps on this conundrum next spring.

“My preference, as stated, would be to see what happens, what the governing bodies decide is best for the game, and then we will take appropriate action in response to that,” Ridley added. Note that he did not guarantee his support of the governing bodies, only that Augusta National will act “in response” to what those bodies do. Or don’t do. The Chairman didn’t refer to “a call to inaction.”

Ridley presides over one of Alistair MacKenzie’s finest creations, a golf course that was never merely a stage upon which great actors performed but an essential character in their drama. The modern power game has greatly diminished the role of the course, and in fighting that Augusta National has been plenty compromised in the last 20-odd years. Ridley gives the sense of a man ill-disposed to continue allowing science to run amok over art.

That will not have been lost on the USGA and R&A. Fred Ridley may speak in measured, lawyerly tones and with a genial smile, but make no mistake, his is the loudest voice in the room.

On Sunday afternoon, Chairman Ridley will conclude the 84th Masters by presiding over a green jacket ceremony in Butler Cabin. It’s a ritual that is as oddly comforting as it is awkward, and it will make everything seem as it has always been at Augusta National. But it isn’t, and it won’t be again.

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