Will fans return to Masters next April? And other pressing questions

The scene is void of patrons as Hideki Matsuyama makes his way across the first fairway during the practice round for the Masters Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. The tournament is being played without patrons.   (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
The scene is void of patrons as Hideki Matsuyama makes his way across the first fairway during the practice round for the Masters Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. The tournament is being played without patrons. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley held his annual pre-Masters press conference Wednesday. In November. This time of year, shouldn’t he instead be enjoying an Arnold Palmer on the veranda before taking a quick lap around the par-3 course?

Instead, there was a certain long-delayed tournament to launch. Welcome to Ridley’s new busy time around the club, which included sitting down in the press room interview area for a few minutes. Both real life and golf had questions to ask this day.

Will the fans be able to return to the grounds for next April’s tournament, assuming the Masters can even get back on schedule?

“Looking on to April, I’m hopeful that we will see improved conditioned regarding this virus, but April is less than five months away. So, there’s certainly no assurance of that,” he said.

“I’m encouraged by what took place last week in Houston, having I think approximately 2,000 fans at that tournament. We’ll be interested to see kind of how that went.”

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What does he need to see before opening back up to fans?

"The broad answer to that question is that we would need to see objective data that would give us a high level of confidence that we could bring large numbers of people onto the grounds for April.

Assuming a vaccine hasn’t been widely introduced by then, might that even entail rapid testing for fans before entering the grounds?

“As far as testing, there are some real opportunities there. Our staff has been exploring those very deeply, and we have a number of people who are very interested in helping us. I think that’s something that we will really be looking hard at, is that capability. That would certainly be a wonderful circumstance if we could test large numbers of people.”

Augusta National Golf Club chairman Fred Ridley.
Augusta National Golf Club chairman Fred Ridley.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club

Credit: Photo courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club

Having announced a $10 million effort with its corporate partners to build a community center and new Boys & Girls Club as part of a long-term plan to revitalize a neighborhood just a mile from the course, is Augusta National looking to try here what East Lake did in Atlanta?

The success story around the East Lake Golf Club is heralded each year at the Tour Championship. Through efforts there an entire community was reshaped and transfused with promise.

Said Ridley, “East Lake certainly is a model and is an inspiration to not only us but to others who have undertaken sort of the re-development of underserved areas. I think it might be somewhat pretentious for me to say that we’re going to follow East Lake because of what they have accomplished over many years in the commitment of Tom Cousins and the East Lake Community Foundation to that project. But I would say that they are certainly a role model.

“We are in for the long term. And we are hopeful in April and beyond that we can continue to talk about this and make announcements as to more progress to really transform this community. It really could be generational for this city.”

You’ve had a player – Bryson DeChambeau – threatening to change the scale and scope of the game once more, as Tiger Woods did in the late 1990s. Can Augusta National contain this latest geometric increase in length? Will it respond and build out its holes into neighboring Aiken, S.C.? Is this what passes for a crisis in golf?

"I’ve been reluctant thus far to make any major changes regarding adding distance to the golf course. I think sometimes when you do that there are unintended consequences. The scale and the scope of the hole, it changes when you add distance. It changes more than just adding distance. The look of the hole changes. And the design philosophy of the hole changes.

"Having said that, I think we are at a crossroads as relates to this issue.

“I do think that we’re coming closer to a call to action. And all I can say is that, as it relates to our golf course, we have options, and we will take the necessary action to make sure we stay relevant.”

In that regard, there’s been much talk about 13th hole here specifically, and whether one of the world’s great par 5s has been neutered by the ever-increasing length off the tee. The club has purchased property on the adjoining Augusta Country Club giving it the option to let out that hole. What’s the future hold for 13?

"It still provides a lot of drama, but its challenge is being diminished. We don’t think that’s good for the Masters. We don’t think it’s good for the game. But the issue is a lot larger than Augusta National and the Masters.

“We can make changes, but not every golf course can.”

OK, no fans this week at the Masters, just assorted media, club membership and a few of those close to the players. Just how hard is it to get onto the grounds this week, even for those with well-placed connections?

“I’ve heard a lot from back in Tampa when I had to advise my three daughters, who are great lovers of this game and this tournament, that they were going to have to stay at home this week.”

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