AUGUSTA, Ga. — Fred Ridley first came to Augusta National to compete in the 1976 Masters as the U.S. Amateur champion, and he played the opening round in the traditional pairing with the defending champion, Jack Nicklaus.
The Tampa resident will have a new role in his next round at Augusta National: the seventh chairman in the 86-year history of the club.
Chairman Billy Payne announced Wednesday that he is retiring on Oct. 16 when the club opens for a new season, and he chose Ridley to succeed him.
"If he's not better than me, then I failed," Payne, 69, said. "And I fully expect him to be. I've seen his passion and his love for our club. I know the way the members respect him, and in many cases, love him. He is going to be a natural fit. And he will lead us in a different way because everybody is different. But it's going to be a better way. This is a great move for Augusta National."
Ridley, 65, was born in Lakeland and raised in Winter Haven, and is a graduate of the University of Florida, where he played on the golf team. He is a partner in the Tampa firm of Foley & Lardner, specializing in real estate law.
Ridley is the last U.S. Amateur champion who never turned pro. He played in the 1977 Walker Cup, was twice a Walker Cup captain, served on the USGA executive committee for 11 years and was president of the USGA in 2004 and 2005.
He also is the reason Payne chose to retire.
"Once I finally decided that Fred was the right person, then I had the sense I had completed my most important job," Payne said. "To make that orderly transition, I needed to get going."
Ridley was not made available for comment. The club said he would not speak about the role until he took over in October.
Payne became chairman in 2006. He has drawn the Masters a map for the 21st century and held open the door for the first female members at Augusta National.
He said Hootie Johnson, his predecessor, told him that his most critical task would be finding a replacement. After taking a year to get settled, he began studying who would be the best candidate.
"I started thinking and looking and, through time, eliminating," Payne said. "As I became aware of the qualifications that it required, it became obvious to me, fairly soon, that Fred was emerging as an unbelievable talent, a man who loved, as I do, Augusta National and all it stands for. At the end, it was an easy decision."
Ridley had been at Payne's side as chairman of the Masters championship committee, though it wasn't always smooth sailing. He was at the center of a rules controversy involving Tiger Woods in 2013.
Woods hit a shot into the 15th hole that struck the pin and bounced back into the water in the second round. He dropped from an incorrect spot, which was spotted by a television viewer, David Eger, a former USGA and PGA Tour rules official. When word got to Ridley, he said he viewed the drop and did not see a violation.
Only after more questions were raised — Woods told the media he purposely dropped the ball a few yards farther away from the original spot — did the rules committee realize he should been penalized. Woods was given a two-shot penalty but spared disqualification for signing an incorrect card because Ridley said officials made a mistake by not speaking to Woods.
Ridley is the first chairman to have played in the Masters, missing the cut all three times. He also played in the U.S. Open and British Open.
"If the game is poised to take some dramatic steps, I think having Fred as chairman of Augusta National is a very good thing," said David Fay, the executive director of the USGA during Ridley's two years as president.
"I'm delighted for Fred. He'll be innovative. With Fred, the tenor and flavor of the club will be comfortable."