AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters isn't sticking to sports.
Augusta National Golf Club chairman Fred Ridley held his annual "State of the Masters" address Monday, and at the end of an opening statement that included references to the beauty of the course and the announcement of a new video game, Ridley focused on a local matter that's gained national attention: a new Georgia election law.
In golf terms, Ridley piped a drive right down the middle of the fairway. He didn't repudiate the law, but the fact that he addressed it at all, on the grounds of Augusta National and on the eve of the Masters, is significant in itself.
"I believe, as does everyone in our organization, that the right to vote is fundamental in our democratic society," Ridley said.
He then offered up a single sentence that if parsed — and it will be parsed — will both enrage and embolden both sides in the battle over the new voting law: "No one should be disadvantaged in exercising that right [to vote], and it is critical that all citizens have confidence in the electoral process."
Georgia election law: origins and controversy
Georgia had voted reliably Republican in all but two presidential elections since 1964. But last November, the state delivered key electoral votes in Democrat Joe Biden's victory over Donald Trump. Nine weeks later, two Democratic Senate challengers unseated Republican opponents. The trio of ground-shaking defeats, combined with Trump continuing to push discredited and debunked claims of widespread electoral fraud, shook the state's Republican leadership. Their response was to propose, develop and quickly pass a sweeping bill to regulate future Georgia elections.
Critics of the bill charge that the law is based on disproven conspiracy theories and unfairly targets minorities through actions such as removing polling locales and reworking state oversight of elections. The law's supporters counter that it's a means of protecting election integrity, and that Georgia remains an easier state in which to cast a ballot than New York or Biden's home state of Delaware.
Augusta National takes the middle path
As with most instances when an entity chooses to take a middle course, Augusta National's stance isn't likely to satisfy either side. Critics of the voting law will surely wish that Ridley had taken a more definitive stand in favor of voting rights, while those who wish to keep their sports and politics separate won't be pleased that Augusta National is touching the topic at all, even in a mild fashion.
One aspect of the Georgia law controversy on which Ridley left no gray area: the idea of a boycott. In the wake of MLB's decision to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta, activists and special interest groups began calling for the Masters to move out of Georgia (a literal impossibility; the Masters is the heart of the club itself) or for ESPN and CBS to boycott coverage of the event and the PGA Tour to strip the Masters of its status.
"There have been calls for boycotts and other punitive measures," Ridley said. "Unfortunately, those actions often impose the greatest burdens on the most vulnerable in our society. And in this case, that includes our friends and neighbors here in Augusta who are the very focus of the positive difference we are trying to make."
Earlier in the address, Ridley had promoted the multimillion-dollar investment ANGC had made in Augusta's underprivileged neighborhoods, through the creation of a community center and other efforts.
'Let the democratic process work'
When pressed, Ridley declined to take a stance one way or another on the law itself.
"I'm not going to speak to the specifics of the law, but ... I think there's a resolution, and I think that resolution is going to be based on people working together and talking and having constructive dialogue because that's the way our democratic society works," he said. "We would like to encourage people to talk, to communicate, to let the democratic process work. And hopefully, these fundamentals that I've stated are so important to us and I think everyone in this room, can be achieved."
Throughout the early part of Masters week, players were asked about their perspective on the Georgia law and voting equality. Some declined to go in depth, claiming unfamiliarity with the specifics of the law. But others responded with messages of general support, if not specific condemnation.
"I'm all for getting people to get out and vote and to have a great democracy, and I've chosen to live in this country because I believe this country is the best country in the world," Rory McIlroy said Tuesday. "America is the land of opportunity, and it's the American dream. You work hard; you get rewarded."
It's not much, but it's a stark change for a sport that's often drawn heat for its lack of diversity and slow responsiveness to societal change. The Georgia election law controversy isn't going away. But here in Georgia, the Masters will go on ... albeit with a bit more of a political edge than usual.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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