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Meet the Tampa attorney who took charge at Augusta Monday

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The new Chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, and with it the Masters, wears a 42-long jacket, including his green one that never leaves the premises.

Monday was the first day on the job for Fred Ridley, 65, a highly successful Tampa lawyer and equally successful husband and father of three grown daughters. Those last two things matter the most.

Last week, Ridley was giving a visitor a tour of his office at America's most famous golf club, home to the world's most iconic golf tournament.

Two oil paintings stood out. One is a portrait of Ridley's hero: Bobby Jones, Augusta co-founder and the Masters' inspirational godfather. The other is of Augusta's famed par-3 16th hole.

The artist: Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It's Augusta.

It's a long way from the public courses Ridley grew up on in Polk County.

But he especially wanted you to see a photo near his desk. In the foreground is an emotional 2017 Masters winner Sergio Garcia after he finally broke through at a major.

Also in the frame, behind the ropes, are two of Ridley's daughters, Libby and Sydney, and Libby's husband. Libby is expecting their first child next January. A boy. Fred Ridley will become a grandfather.

"Unbelievable photography," he said.

Unbelievable journey.

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Ridley sat in his office, wearing the green jacket he received when Augusta invited him to become a member in 2000. He succeeds his good friend, Billy Payne, to become the seventh Augusta chairman since the club opened in 1933 (The first Masters was held a year later). There have been twice as many U.S. presidents in that time.

There is kingdom and power among the dogwoods, pines and azaleas. The Chairman's word can be wielded that way. Only Fred Ridley doesn't act like he wields a thing. Meet the measured man, meticulous, organized, understated, with boundless reverence for those who went before him, beginning with Jones and the club's other co-founder, its decades-long chairman and major domo, Clifford Roberts.

"I really consider being a member here as one of the great privileges of my life," Ridley said. "So, it's hard to even talk about what it is to be the chairman, or what it will be like to be the chairman. I look at it with an immense amount of respect and with a full understanding of the responsibility that goes with it. I'm holding this merely as a custodian. I don't own it. I don't possess it. I didn't earn it."

But Ridley's coming is unique. He is the first Augusta Chairman to have played in the Masters, which he did three times in the 1970s (three missed cuts). He won the 1975 U.S. Amateur championship. Ridley is also the last U.S. Amateur winner not to turn professional, choosing a law career. Bobby Jones never turned professional, either, and was a lawyer.

"Fred is the ultimate gentleman," said Tom Shannon, a Ridley friend. "He's the epitome of amateur golf. I think of him as a baby Bobby Jones."

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Now, about Fred's hair.

It has long fascinated.

"It's starting to turn a little gray, but I still have a fair amount of it," Ridley said with a smile.

A fair amount? It confuses people is what it does. This guy can't be 65. He looks forever young. Ridley's wavy corona is as immaculate as Augusta's fairways and greens.

That reminds everyone: Fred's medium brown mop when he was 23 and walking the 14th fairway on the first day of his first Masters, in 1976, striding along with the defending champion, a man named Jack Nicklaus — another photo Ridley treasures.

Gary Koch, Ridley's friend and former University of Florida golf teammate, lives near Ridley in South Tampa. Koch, who was a successful professional golfer and is still a commentator, thinks Ridley is a perfect match for Augusta.

"They're both the same," Koch said with a laugh, "Every hair in place."

Ridley's youngest daughter, Sydney, puts photos of her father's hair on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, using the hashtag: #Fredshair.

"We love to make fun of him," Sydney said. "And he takes it like a champ."

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The new Augusta Chairman was born in Lakeland and raised in Winter Haven, the only son of Polk County school teachers and administrators. Ridley's mother, Ann, 94, still lives in Winter Haven. His father, Claude, passed in 2008.

At Florida, Ridley wasn't nearly the best golfer on a powerhouse Gators golf team that won the 1973 NCAA title and included Koch and Andy Bean.

"I played a fair amount, but they always cut the NCAA to five players," Ridley said. "... I was always kind of the odd man out."

And then Odd Man Out won the 1975 U.S. Amateur, beating Florida teammate Bean in a semifinal along the way.

"As we were leaving the club, Andy walks up to me, face to face, chest to chest," Ridley said with a smile. "I'm 6-2. He's 6-4. He takes me by the collar of the shirt and lifts me about four inches off the ground."

"I threatened him," Bean said with a laugh. "I told him I'd kick his butt if he didn't go on and win it."

"So, I said, 'Okay, Andy, I got it,'" Ridley said.

He defeated Keith Fergus to win the Amateur.

The win opened doors, but the one Ridley didn't walk through was turning professional.

"It's just something that wasn't in my heart," he said. "No. 1, I wasn't sure that I had the talent, but you can always get better. But I didn't really like the lifestyle, even for the players who were doing well. That was before jets, but it's still not a great lifestyle."

So, the law it would be. Ridley attended Stetson University College of Law. He is a partner at international law firm of Foley & Lardner LLP. Ridley is a business and real estate lawyer and national chairman of the firm's real estate practice, He also has a role in the firm's work with Hillsborough County to find a stadium site for the Rays.

"He's a wonderful lawyer, but he's even a better person," said Mike Annis, Ridley's law partner and mentor for nearly 35 years.

Ridley climbed golf's hierarchy. He worked for the United States Golf Association's executive committee before serving as USGA president. At Augusta, Payne was chair of the competition committee and basically ran the Masters for the last 11 years.

His admiration only grew for Jones, the amateur's amateur, who died in 1971, five years before Ridley first played at Augusta.

"I love reading about him," Ridley said. "You can read about all his accomplishments as a golfer, but he was an incredible human being. I've had the opportunity over the years to read a lot of his letters, and he was such a thoughtful gentleman. He was someone I was truly inspired to be like."

And now he's Chairman. All that power, prestige and ...

Ridley stops you right there. He's thinking of his wife, Betsy.

"Oh, gosh, does she keep me grounded. She'll put me in my place real fast."

Betsy said, "If he tried to act like more than he is, it wouldn't last long or I'd kill him. And I have an army behind me, the three girls."

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They met in Gainesville in 1975. Betsy was a senior at Florida. She attended Plant High. Fred was up from Stetson for a Gators football game.

They recently celebrated their 40th anniversary. They're a good balance, the measured Fred and the joyously earthy Betsy.

The Ridleys live near Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club, where they are members. Fred also is a member at Old Memorial and a few other clubs.

Then there are Maggie, Libby and Sydney, "The Ridley Girls," as they are known to those who love them. Maggie, the oldest, is in public relations in Chicago. Libby is a lawyer in Tampa. Sydney is a political lobbyist based in Tampa.

Ridley's daughters play golf. He has taken his family all over the world in his travels, but is perfectly happy when he's home Friday nights and they all go out for pizza.

He has a sweet tooth for cars and is a bit of a clothes horse. Ridley and some friends have a suite at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for Florida football games.

"My dad always wears a Gators shirt," Sydney said. "But slacks. Always slacks."

The Chairman has a wine cellar at the house. He also has a favorite movie.

Hold onto your pin placements.

"He'll probably die if I tell you. It's Liar Liar, Betsy said. "The girls and I always make fun of him."

Bet you Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts would have loved Liar Liar.

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Monday was Fred Ridley's first day as Chairman at Augusta National. He has thought about his father.

"That's probably my only sadness, that he never got to see this."

But there's a grandchild on the way, a future golfer perhaps.

"We're going to work on that quickly," Ridley said with a smile.

Golf and family. Family and golf.

And, of course, Fred's hair.

Times researcher Caryn Bair contributed to this report

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029


What they're saying

What they're saying about Tampa attorney Fred Ridley, who on Monday became chairman of Augusta National Golf Club:

 

"I am now proud to call upon my good friend Fred Ridley to lead Augusta National and the Masters to a future that I am confident will hold new promise, while always being faithful to the principles of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts. Fred will be an excellent chairman who will serve with my complete and enthusiastic support."

Billy Payne, Ridley's predecessor as Augusta National chairman, after Ridley was elected chairman.

 

"He's a gentleman's gentleman. He's extremely understated. You wouldn't know he was once president of the USGA. People in Tampa, except golf people, wouldn't know he's a member at Augusta. Now he's chairman. Most people in prestigious positions might flaunt it. He's just the opposite."

Mike Annis, Ridley's law partner

 

"You could search high and low and you're not going to hear one bad word about Fred. You get extra credit if you do."

Steve Melnyk, former professional golfer, sportscaster

 

"Fred was a player of national note. The players respect that and his background. They're going to accept decisions from the Augusta group better because they respect and know him as a player. They keep talking about changes to the golf course. To me, Fred is the perfect guy to be in charge when changes are made."

Gary Koch, Ridley's Florida teammate, professional golfer and commentator

 

"He doesn't look 65 at all. The hair is always perfect. He has a very youthful vigor to his approach on life. He's very easy going, very approachable. He's one of those people who's impossible not to like."

Randy Wolfe, Ridley's law partner

     
   
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