Fred Ridley's Master Stroke
Fred Ridley chose the law over life as a professional golfer. So how did he end up teeing off with Arnold Palmer?
Published in 2006 Florida Super Lawyers magazine
on June 14, 2006
Updated on January 25, 2017
You’re a 23-year-old law student and you’ve just won the United States Amateur golf championship and suddenly you have the chance to fulfill your dream to play professional golf. What do you do? That question’s not on the LSAT, but in 1975 that was the real-life dilemma for Fred Ridley.
He returned to law school. That makes him the only amateur champion in the past 30 years not to turn pro. This may seem crazy, passing up the chance to play pro golf, but for Ridley, the decision was obvious and a completely practical one. A law career was simply the pragmatic way to go.
That’s not to say he abandoned golf. It’s golf, in fact, that has provided the foundation of his thriving law practice at Foley & Lardner. He’s co-chair of the firm’s Golf & Resort Industry Team and he has just completed a two-year run as president of the United States Golf Association (USGA). That stint had him traveling to such places as Argentina, golfing with such dignitaries as Prince Andrew, dining at the White House with the president and hanging out with his boyhood idol, Arnold Palmer.
Thirty years later, opting for law school doesn’t seem such a silly idea after all.
On a sunny Friday afternoon last December, Fred Ridley steps to the first hole at Old Memorial Golf Club in Tampa, which he helped found nine years ago. He places his hands wide on the shaft of his driver, bends at the waist to stretch and complains about his back. “I twisted something on a five-mile morning run with some buddies,” the 53-year-old says. “Not sure how I’ll do.”
Ah, the former champ with a career-low round of 63 is a regular guy, making excuses before play begins. Then he hits the ball. His swing is like those seen only on TV — perfectly smooth and fluid — the ball sails in a graceful arc down the center of the fairway. Bad back notwithstanding, he nails a 270-yard drive, a little farther than he did in his competitive days, thanks to the game’s technological advances and his fine-tuned swing. He plays at a handicap of one. And that pre-swing excuse? If you were playing for money, you’d regard him as a shark.
Back in 1975, Ridley was ranked the No. 2 amateur in the nation, behind Andy Bean. Bean turned pro and went on to win 11 Professional Golf Association championships. But Ridley beat Bean in the U.S. Amateur. Does he ever look at Bean and think, “That could have been me”?
No, he says. He steps onto a fairway bunker where his drive on the 15th hole has landed. “I’ve made a good living practicing law,” he says over his shoulder, not looking back. “I have no regrets.”
Ridley’s dream to play professional golf began after he won several junior tournaments when he was a high school student in Winter Haven, Fla. He was given a golf scholarship to the University of Florida and planned to turn professional after graduation. He lettered three times, but with teammates like Bean, Gary Koch, Woody Blackburn and Phil Hancock — all of whom would play professionally — Ridley failed to make the five-man team that went on to win the NCAA national title in 1973. The rejection brought out the realist in him. “I realized I was a small fish in a big pond,” he says. He decided he’d better get serious about his studies.
Ridley’s father introduced him to golf at the age of 10 but never thought of the game as a profession. Coming out of the service in 1945, the B-17 pilot wanted to be an attorney himself but could afford only a semester of law school. He became a high school math teacher and later a school administrator. He hoped to see his law ambition fulfilled by his son, and Fred Ridley accepted the challenge.
In 1975, after a year at Stetson University College of Law, the oldest law school in Florida, Ridley took the summer off to play in tournaments. That summer, he was runner-up in the Florida State Amateur and played well in three regional amateur tournaments before winning the U.S. Amateur at Richmond, Va., knocking off the likes of Jack Veghte, Curtis Strange, Keith Fergus and former Gator teammate Andy Bean.
But success neither swelled his head nor changed his plans. “Sometimes you get in that zone where you can beat anybody,” he says, strolling to the final green. “I started knocking off guys one by one.” A week after becoming the national amateur champion, he returned to law school.
Still, winning the U.S. Amateur opens doors. For Ridley, it meant an invitation to play in the 1976 Masters, where he was paired in the opening round with defending champion Jack Nicklaus. That round provided Ridley with yet another reality check.
The young champ matched Nicklaus for the first eight holes, when they were both one under. But Nicklaus played the last 10 holes four under, finishing with a 67. Ridley played six over, finishing with a 77.
A year later he took eight months off from law school for golf. He was paired with Tom Watson and defending champion Lou Graham in the ’76 U.S. Open, and played with Sam Sneed in the ’77 Masters, though he did not make the cut in either. He competed for the U.S. Walker Cup in 1977 and continued to play in the U.S. Amateur until 1984. “I initially worried about taking off from school for a semester to play, but received good counsel from others that it was the right thing to do,” Ridley says. “After that, I enjoyed it very much and it was tough to get back to the reality of the law school classes that fall.”
Despite his success on the course, he was never swayed to try his luck on the pro tour. Law seemed the surer thing. Of course, the purses available on the golf circuit at that time were significantly lighter than they are today. Nicklaus, the top winner in 1975, earned $298,149 — pocket change compared to Tiger Woods’ winnings of $10.6 million in 2005.
After completing his law degree in 1977 and a three-year stint with the legendary Mark McCormack, Ridley took a job at the Tampa firm of Bucklew & Ramsey in 1980. Four years later, he moved to Annis & Mitchell, where for the next 16 years he carved out a specialty in real estate development law, particularly around golf courses and resorts. In 2001, Ridley and five other partners joined the Tampa office of Foley & Lardner.
During the past decade, he has assisted in financing more than 100 private golf clubs, public golf courses and golf resorts. And though he may not have gone pro, he never quit the game. As a nonplaying captain, Ridley led the ’87 U.S. Walker Cup team to victory, but lost in ‘89. In 1994, he became the youngest member on the USGA executive committee. Ten years later, he became the USGA’s president.
The USGA hosts 13 national championships, including the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open. As the sport’s governing body, it writes and enforces rules pertaining to equipment and competition. When he became president, the organization was viewed as out of touch by some in the golf community. “That was not the case, but perception is reality,” Ridley says. In a bold move, he set out to expand the USGA’s role beyond that of merely a governing body. Through a series of initiatives aimed at disabled golfers, youth and golfers in Mexico, he made a clear effort to reach out to groups that had been feeling neglected. “Today, we’ve taken a more relevant seat at the table,” he says. “I expect to see that as a continued theme.”
The demands of the USGA presidency — board meetings, tournaments, speaking engagements and a variety of other duties as golf’s ambassador — take Ridley out of the office and away from clients. He’s been on the road about 150 days in each of the past two years. “Fortunately, I have an understanding group of partners,” he says.
What his partners understand is that Ridley’s high profile helps the firm attract both clients and talent. “We view his relationship with the USGA as truly beneficial to the firm,” says Jon Wilson, a Foley & Lardner partner in the Los Angeles office. “It has brought a lot of credibility to the Florida practice and to our firm overall.”
As USGA president, Ridley worked closely with Arnold Palmer on the organization’s golf museum expansion at its headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., that will bear The King’s name. Ridley was initially in awe of his childhood idol. But he quickly found himself at ease with the man, who he says is a gracious, humble person. “People come at him from all directions, yet he makes everyone he talks to feel like they’re the most important person to him,” Ridley says. “That’s special.”
Ridley shares the same qualities. As USGA president and an amateur champion, he holds a measure of celebrity himself. In the men’s lounge of Old Memorial, a steady stream of people — a prominent attorney, a fellow club founder, other remote acquaintances — approach Ridley’s table, where he’s seated with a guest. With each person who interrupts his conversation, he pauses a moment to chat, friendly and gracious, showing no sign of annoyance.
One man, referring to Ridley’s term as the USGA president, comments, “Almost done?”
Ridley leans back and smiles. “February 4, 6 p.m.”
After that, Ridley plans to step back from the USGA temporarily. He looks forward to becoming more involved in his firm’s daily business, indulging the Foley & Lardner value for community service, spending time with his wife and three daughters and, of course, playing more golf. “My handicap is one, but I expect to bring that down to scratch next year,” he says.
Thirty years ago, Ridley chose law over golf, and today he recognizes the extraordinary opportunities that choice gave him. Visiting new places, meeting important people, making an impact on the game — all that has surpassed any winnings he may have earned on the pro tour. “I call it psychological capital,” he says. “That’s worth more than any dollar amount.”