News & Opinion

‘Perfect marriage’: Augusta adds women’s event

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The women’s issue has troubled Augusta National for years, but new chairman Fred Ridley established Wednesday that he is in charge with a surprise announcement: women finally will have the opportunity to compete at Augusta National.

With the introduction of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship, any remaining vestiges of sexism by the club, which admitted its first female members only six years ago, have been removed.

In 2002, feminist Martha Burk questioned the club’s all-male membership policies, thrusting the issue into the public spotlight ahead of that year’s Masters. Burk questioned the motives of then-chairman Hootie Johnson, but many observers thought that the women’s issued eventually would be resolved under a new chairman.

When Billy Payne took over in 2006, the issue of women’s membership remained a hot topic. It wouldn’t be resolved for six more years, until Condoleezza Rice, a former secretary of state, and South Carolina banker Darla Moore were invited to join the club. Just this week, Augusta National expanded its women’s membership to five (“Augusta adds new chapter in Spanish,” April 4).

“I think it’s fantastic for August and terrific for women’s golf,” Rice said of the women’s amateur event. “It’s the perfect marriage. This place has always honored amateurs: Bobby Jones, our chairman and of course the amateurs who play here. Now these wonderful women are going to get a chance.” 

The tournament, which begins in 2019, further expands Augusta National’s outreach to help grow the game. In recent years, the club has been instrumental in launching the Asia-Pacific Amateur and the Latin America Amateur, with each winner earning a spot in the Masters, plus the Drive, Chip and Putt event for children, with the finals at the club on the Sunday before the Masters.

Inviting women as members eventually proved to be incomplete. The next frontier was whether the club would be willing to open Augusta National to other events, specifically a women’s tournament, as part of the club’s grow-the-game initiative, but Payne shot down any such possibility.

“I don't think so,” Payne said in his annual address to the media in 2015. “We have a very short member season at Augusta National. It's seven months only. The time that we dedicate to the preparation and conduct of the tournament is already extensive. I don't think that we would ever host another tournament.”

Ridley, 65, the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion who played the Masters in 1976-78, also is the father of three daughters. He clearly is aware of the need for diversity in golf, including a broader membership roll at Augusta National. He made that point in his announcement.

“I think focusing on amateur golf is consistent with our history, with our founder, our co-founder, Bobby Jones,” said Ridley, explaining the addition of an amateur tournament instead of a professional event. “We also feel that that is the way that we can make the greatest impact in growing the game, and in this particular instance, the women's game. So, we thought that was the better way to go and the better use of our resources.” 

Invitations for the 72-player international field will be extended to winners of national and international championships plus via the World Amateur Golf Ranking. The first 36 holes will be played April 4-5 at Champions Retreat Golf Club in nearby Evans before the field is cut to 30 players for the final 18 holes to be played April 6, on the Saturday before the Masters, at Augusta National.

"This is a dream come true,” Annika Sorenstam, a 10-time major champion and World Golf Hall of Fame member, said after the announcement. “This is the greatest stage. I would say any golfer dreams about playing here. It’s a carrot for these young girls.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli