Chairman Billy Payne took a ship in distress and rebuilt Augusta National into golf's Titanic tournament operation.
The retiring chairman inherited multiple mistakes made by the late Hootie Johnson and not only remedied those errors, but reinvigorated The Masters to an even greater standard by merely working off of the founder blueprint. Payne injected new life into international amateur golf and started a grow-the-game initiative that boldly countered the vision of the PGA Tour's First Tee. Most amazingly, the outgoing chairman opened the doors to Augusta National in a way that still marvels longtime attendees even after four editions of the Drive, Chip and Putt.
Billy Payne will go down as Augusta National's most important figure after Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones.
He's first team All-Augusta National and MVP of the 21st century.
Payne's likability makes the choice of Fred Ridley as successor a bold and curious move.
While Ridley has been a dutiful lieutenant as chairman of the rules committee who also helped right the ship on Masters course setup following the cynical and shallow Hootie-Fazio approach, it's still not clear what Ridley thinks of Augusta National's architecture. The former U.S. Amateur champion, former USGA President, former IMG agent, former Walker Cup captain and current lawyer is also strongly linked to the USGA's most unsuccessful presidency: the Walter Driver years and nominating committee aftermath.
Driver and Ridley, serving as past-presidents heading the Executive Committee nomination process, have driven the corporatization of the USGA via the nominating process, resulting in the organization taking credibility hits for failing to acknowledge the role of distance and for emphasizing the stockpiling of wealth.
There is one counterpoint to those repulsed by the organization's infatuation with the dollar: the USGA had to stockpile cash to be ready for a legal fight over distance. It's never been clear if that's where Driver and Ridley stand.
Whereas Chairman Payne clearly did not enjoy the topic and deferred to the governing bodies. And while Payne repeatedly hinted he was near the end of his tenure due to having completed the building projects near and dear to his heart (while dealing with what sounded like debilitating back issues), the hopes for an Augusta National Golf Course revival will now rest with Ridley.
There was a telling sign this summer that Payne is handing off the headache of managing Augusta National's Jones-MacKenzie-Roberts vision in the 400-yard-drive era to Ridley. The first hint came when America's most influential course was seen in off-season aerials showing no work in progress at the par-4 5th. Payne had all but declared this year that a lengthening would occur now that Berckman's Road had moved and the club enjoyed an expanded western perimeter.
Couple this with news of the club purchasing room behind the 13th tee giving them the option to add length, and it sure feels like Chairman Payne closed this deal to let the golf course become Ridley's main task as Chairman.
Given Payne's ability to sell his initiatives and the complexities of the distance issue, Ridley's task is difficult. Throw in his allegiance to the USGA and the organization's current position that distance advances have flatlined, and he faces an almost unimaginably difficult task of keeping Augusta National relevant as 340-yard carries become the norm.
The next step in keeping Augusta National relevant will require something more clever than mowing fairways toward tees and adding a couple of new tees. The greens cannot get faster and the fairways cannot get slower or narrower. The modern player, his coaches, his Trackman and his strength coaches are going to keep helping the elite golfer get the most out of technology.
New chairman-Ridley could either be the perfect person to help pave the way for bifurcation using the power of The Masters, or the worst person possible for the job if he's determined to keep sweeping the matter under a tapestry of tees, rye grass and trees.
Good luck, Mr. Ridley!