Master of the course and the courtroom

Warrington played an integral role in alumnus Fred Ridley's rise to Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and partner with international law firm Foley & Lardner LLP

When Fred Ridley arrived at the University of Florida campus as a student, he expected it to be a quick stop on his way to a professional golf career. Instead, it turned into four years that would help shape his future as a successful businessman and lawyer.

Today, Ridley (BSBA ’74) is a partner with the international law firm Foley & Lardner LLP, while also serving as Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, home to the annual Masters Tournament.

His long road to these two roles began as a business student and member of the UF golf team in 1970. Ridley joined the UF golf program when it was a perennial national championship contender. Playing on teams loaded with All-Americans and future professionals like Andy Bean, Phil Hancock, Gary Koch and Andy North, Ridley was often the sixth or seventh golfer on the squad. 

“When I got to UF, I thought I would play golf professionally,” Ridley said. “I learned very quickly that was not going to be the case. I always made good grades and, when I decided to pursue a law degree, I gravitated to business as an undergraduate major. I got a really good background from the business school at UF.”

During Ridley’s four seasons at UF, the Florida golf team finished in the top three in the country every year, highlighted by a national championship in 1973. Ridley played occasionally, but was not a regular on the traveling team.

About two years into his time at UF, Ridley made up his mind to attend law school after graduation. He enjoyed golf, but he saw law school as a more likely path to a successful career than chasing the ups and downs that come with the pursuit of professional golf.

“There are so few people who truly make it in professional golf,” Ridley said. “But there are a lot of good lawyers who have successful careers. It was just a realistic decision about my future.”

Although Ridley was headed to law school after his senior year at UF, he wasn’t ready to give up competitive golf just yet. During his last semester at UF, he began playing amateur tournaments around the country and was introduced to Jack Grout, who was best known for being Jack Nicklaus’s first and only golf teacher. Grout began giving Ridley lessons and had him playing some of the best golf of his life. After Ridley finished his first year of law school at Stetson University, he returned to Grout before traveling to play in amateur tournaments around the country.

Ridley played well during that summer in 1975 and qualified for the U.S. Amateur Championship. Days before returning to law school at Stetson, Ridley claimed the title, defeating eight opponents, including NCAA champion Curtis Strange (who later won two U.S. Open championships) and his former Gator teammate Andy Bean along the way. But, winning the national championship didn’t alter his future plans.

“The next week I was back in the classroom,” Ridley said.

Winning the U.S. Amateur Championship earned Ridley an invitation to some of the most prestigious tournaments in the country, including the Masters and the U.S. Open. Because of Ridley’s unique situation, the dean at Stetson allowed him to take a sabbatical to participate in these tournaments before returning to finish his law degree.

During his final semester of law school, Ridley received a phone call from sports management executive Mark McCormack that would change his direction. McCormack met Arnold Palmer in college and began handling Palmer’s contracts and other business affairs. After adding clients such as golfers Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Formula One racing driver Jackie Stewart, McCormack formed the International Management Group (IMG). Ridley agreed to work with McCormack at IMG in Cleveland. Despite the downside of leaving Florida, Ridley began his law career while continuing to be involved in sports.

“I knew IMG wasn’t going to be my whole career, but it was a great way to get started and see what I wanted to do from there,” Ridley said. “It was a great experience. Although I had responsibilities with the company’s general counsel, it was primarily a sales and marketing job. I learned how to represent athletes and brands.”

After three years at IMG, Ridley and his wife returned to Tampa in 1980, where he went to work for a small law firm before joining another Tampa firm that eventually grew to 80 employees. Sixteen years later, Ridley joined Foley & Lardner, where he has practiced for 21 years.  During his tenure at Foley, Ridley has served on the firm’s management committee, and chaired its national real estate practice. He currently serves on the board of directors of Starwood Property Trust as well as several private companies. Through it all, his experience as a business student at UF played an important role in his career.

“I had some great role models at UF and have kept in touch with several classmates over the years,” Ridley said.  “I’ve benefitted greatly from those relationships throughout my career.”

After graduating from law school, Ridley continued to play amateur golf until he returned to Tampa. Everyone knew him as a golfer, but he wanted to create a professional reputation. So he put his clubs in the closet and tried to move to the next chapter in his life.

But in 1987, Ridley reconnected with the sport he loved. The United States Golf Association (USGA) had asked Ridley to lead the U.S. team in the Walker Cup, a biennial match against amateur golfers from Great Britain and Ireland mirroring the Ryder Cup.  He went on to captain the Walker Cup team again in 1989.

In 1994, the USGA asked Ridley to join its Executive Committee, and several years later, he became USGA president.

“It was a great opportunity to give back to the game that had given me so much,” Ridley said.

In 2006, a year after Ridley’s time on the USGA Executive Committee ended, he took over as the chairman of the Masters Competition and Rules committees, reporting to then Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Billy Payne. Ridley held this role for 11 years until Payne’s retirement, and Ridley was appointed to succeed him as chairman.

Ridley remains a partner at Foley and said his role at Augusta National is largely a business role. The club and the Masters Tournament has been more active in its outreach over the past decade, helping golf grow around the world. The Masters sponsors amateur tournaments in Latin America and Asia. The week before the Masters, Augusta National hosts a women’s amateur championship event and the Drive, Chip and Putt national finals for youth 7-15 years old.

Consistent with Augusta National’s core value of community, the club, along with corporate partners AT&T, Bank of America, IBM and Mercedes Benz, provided the lead funding for the construction of an innovation hub and Boys & Girls Club in the underserved communities of Harrisburg and Laney Walker near the center of Augusta.

“We are proud to be partnering with our sponsors as well as Augusta University Health and the Community Foundation for the Central Savannah River Area to make a significant positive impact in the Augusta community by providing opportunities in healthcare, nutrition and education,” Ridley said.  “We are spending a lot of time and energy on social issues that go beyond golf because golf has given us the resources to help. I would say it all started at UF, but I’ve learned along the way. It’s very much an executive role that I’m in now. I leave golf to others.”

Adding to the satisfaction Ridley has found from the growth of his roles in golf, he recently renewed his connection to his alma mater when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appointed Ridley to the UF Board of Trustees in February 2021.

“I’m proud to be part of UF’s continued momentum,” Ridley said. “It’s a great time to be involved with UF with so many exciting things going on. The fact that our university is recognized in the top five in the country is just one of the many positives. This new role as a trustee has reinvigorated my passion for UF.”