Who gets the best parking space at the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island? Not Masters champ Phil Mickelson. Not even Tiger Woods. That perk belongs to Fred S. Ridley, new head of the U.S. Golf Assn., which stages golf's most prestigious championship. Ridley, a Tampa real estate lawyer and former U.S.
Amateur winner, was appointed to the two-year volunteer post in February. The June 10-13 Open is his public debut as USGA president. Whether that tenure will be marred by a public-relations black eye depends on how Ridley handles a small problem that could become a big one.
Ridley still plays golf superbly -- he carries a one handicap -- so it's not surprising that he would be drawn to superb golf courses. He's a member of two of the best, Augusta National in Georgia and Pine Valley, hidden away in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Both clubs choose their members as carefully as Donald Trump picks an apprentice. Neither club has a woman member. Pine Valley's course is off-limits to female players.
Ridley's memberships weren't anyone's business while he was closing deals for his Florida clients. But the rules of the game changed when he assumed his high-profile post. Now, Ridley has to answer to millions of golfers. He says he has no plans to relinquish his membership in either club. "I do not connect my official role at the USGA with where I play golf," says Ridley, who won the U.S. Amateur in 1975.
To critics, that stance seems as dated as plus-fours and hickory-shafted clubs. "For the top guy at the USGA to belong to these clubs with their policy toward women, it's not an honorable thing," says Jane Blalock, a star on the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. Tour in the 1970s and '80s. Adds Athena Yiamouyiannis, executive director of the National Association for Girls & Women in Sport, in Reston, Va.: "It gives the impression that the USGA is a good ol' boy system. It promotes the idea of exclusion."
Hobnobbing at golf clubs that bar women creates a perception problem for the USGA Foundation, which last year donated more than $5.7 million to charities dedicated to making golf "more affordable and accessible." Among this year's grants: $8,000 to Chicago-based Girls in the Game to help 200 inner-city players learn the basics. Ladies, just don't grow up hoping to tee up at Pine Valley.
"He's making a mockery of [the foundation's] written policies. It's impossible to reconcile," says Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, who has unsuccessfully pressured Augusta to admit women members.
Long before Ridley, golf had a sorry record of elitism and exclusion. But now all of golf's major organizations -- the PGA and LPGA Tours, the PGA of America, and the USGA -- have wised up. They insist that clubs hosting their events not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or religion. (Augusta National, which hosts the Masters, isn't an official PGA Tour event).
Ridley's USGA follows these high-minded principles as scrupulously as any. So do some of its senior officials. David Fay, the organization's executive director, resigned from Pine Valley back in 2000. Asked about it at the time, Fay, who declined to be interviewed by BusinessWeek, said he couldn't justify the club's all-male membership policy to his two daughters.
Ridley's three golfing daughters have barely raised an eyebrow, he says: "It's not a negative issue in our family." Maybe Ridley takes solace in that -- and in the fact that USGA members have yet to make noise. During Ridley's first four months as president, only 18 of 700,000 members have contacted the USGA to complain, according to a spokesman.
Ridley can wait until more hackers join the trickle of lady pros and equal-rights activists calling for him to cut ties with the male-only clubs. Or he can act now and spare the USGA a gender firestorm it doesn't need. It's a tough choice, but not that tough. Just think of all the money he'll be saving on dues.
Corrections and Clarifications
"Let's all play golf -- just not here" (Sports Biz, June 21) described Pine Valley's golf course as off-limits to female players. In fact, women guests are permitted to play, but only on Sunday afternoons
By Mark Hyman