AUGUSTA, Ga. — Almost 16 years ago, when the Augusta National Golf Club became a battleground over its exclusively male membership, it was hard to imagine that the club’s chairman would one day support women’s golf in a groundbreaking way.
As the home to the Masters tournament since 1934, Augusta National’s grounds are hallowed because they remain mostly unchanged and famously inaccessible. Policies at the club have been amended at a glacial pace; the first female members were not admitted until 2012.
But on Wednesday, Fred Ridley, in his first major appearance as the new chairman of Augusta National, unexpectedly announced that the club would create and help host the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship next year. The 54-hole tournament will be played the week before the 2019 Masters, with the first two rounds at a local club near Augusta and the final round at Augusta National on April 6, a Saturday.
The objective is to grow the game of golf and to benefit women’s golf at all levels.
The event may accomplish both goals quickly since it will most likely be the most watched women’s golf tournament of 2019.
“This is a dream come true,” said the retired star Annika Sorenstam, who attended the announcement. “It will be an exciting carrot for these young amateurs.”
The ripple effects could be considerable and multifaceted.
Young girls around the world taking up golf can now aspire to a heretofore unfathomable ambition: winning a national women’s championship at the celebrated home of the Masters. The tournament, coming just before the Masters, should soon become a spring broadcasting fixture attracting more converts to golf.
There will most likely be other consequences. The women’s professional tours have in recent years seen a throng of teenagers joining their ranks, and not always with the best results for the young players. A chance to play in a new national championship at Augusta National might stem the rising tide of adolescents by making the amateur option more appealing.
The change may also persuade more female college golfers to remain in school, since there is a new title to chase. Those golfers might find their parents enthusiastically backing a decision to remain on campus, because mom and dad probably long for the chance to get inside the gates at Augusta National, too.
The inception of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship is good news for other non-competitors as well. Tickets to the Masters are among the most sought-after in American sports, in part because of the course’s renowned aesthetics and design.
Ridley, who became the club’s chairman last October, did not disclose details about how many fans would be allowed to attend the new event, but it will undoubtedly be a hot ticket and bring more attention to the women’s game.
What is known is that the tournament will have an international field of 72 elite players. Winners from various recognized amateur championships, including the United States Women’s Amateur, will be invited along with many of the highest ranked women in the world amateur golf ranking. The first two 18-hole rounds will take place at the Champions Retreat Golf Club in Evans, Ga.
Ridley said he considered the new tournament to be an extension of Masters week, which also includes a youth drive, chip and putt championship on the Sunday before the main event.
The new women’s tournament could, however, create a scheduling conflict for the L.P.G.A. The ANA Inspiration, the first major of the year on the women’s calendar, is held the week before the Masters.
Ridley said Wednesday that he had spoken to L.P.G.A. Commissioner Michael Whan and that Whan had agreed that the new championship would have a positive long-term impact on women’s golf.
In 2002, Augusta National received exacting scrutiny over its membership policies after Martha Burk, then the head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, wrote a private letter to the club’s chairman at the time, William Johnson, questioning its exclusion of women.
Johnson answered Burk with a sharply worded news release that said, in part: “There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours, and not at the point of a bayonet.”
An ensuing firestorm included extensive news media coverage and a small protest led by Burk near the gates of Augusta National during the 2003 Masters.
The mood at the club on Wednesday was far more conciliatory, and it appeared the golf world had Ridley to thank for that.
Asked what motivated him to help grow the women’s game, Ridley, a former United States Amateur champion, answered: “I just felt that there was an opportunity and a platform to make a statement as to how we feel about this part of the game. I just felt it was time to do that. I happen to have three daughters, and they all love golf. They’re not really very good players, but they all love the game. And I know they’re going to be really excited about this.”
Published at Thu, 05 Apr 2018 12:09:37 +0000