News & Opinion

Perfect? No, but Augusta event elevates women

As golfers, we often do the unthinkable to set ourselves up for an exceptional round of golf. The hours-long pilgrimage through western Oregon to reach Bandon Dunes and the parking-lot camping expedition for a shot at getting on Bethpage are a currency that every player understands, regardless of skill level.

And it transcends the amateur game. That much was clear by the way a Masters-eve announcement of the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship was received by LPGA players (“‘Perfect marriage’: Augusta adds women’s event,” April 5).

Tweeted Jessica Korda, a 25-year-old who forwent college to turn professional eight years ago, “Can I get my Am status back? I wanna play Augusta lol.”

There’s great golf and there’s coveted golf, and then there’s Augusta National. Chairman Fred Ridley and his fellow organizers of this new grow-the-game initiative have given every competitive female amateur golfer a potential ticket to a course previously off limits.

The news sent a ripple through the game, raising questions about who should gain entry, whether LPGA players should have their shot, too, and the number of women in the 72-player field (only 30) who actually will reach Augusta for the final round on April 6, the Saturday before the Masters. One should hardly expect something this big to shake out without a few growing pains (and in fact, until a few days ago, one hardly expected a women’s event at Augusta National Golf Club at all). It’s the most important thing to keep in mind as the initiative rolls toward reality during the next year. 

Though Augusta’s sudden pivot toward female inclusion initially shocked the golf world, it’s really not that surprising that the club would choose to further its outreach with a women’s amateur event rather than an LPGA event. Club co-founder Bobby Jones’ legacy is one of unfailing support for amateur golf, as four-time U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champion Meghan Stasi pointed out. Stasi, like many top female amateurs, watched her phone explode with texts and calls on April 4 when the news broke.

Stasi’s most likely road to competing at Augusta would be through an exemption for the winner of the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur – an exemption that wasn’t created for the inaugural event. It’s probably the most troubling oversight, considering the winner of the U.S. Mid-Amateur traditionally is granted a spot in the Masters field. 

“I think they’re going to do the right thing, down the road,” said Stasi, who already is imagining how the Women’s Mid-Am would benefit. 

The U.S. Golf Association announced in October that the Women’s Mid-Am winner will now receive an exemption into the U.S. Women’s Open. Add a shot at competing at Augusta and it would go a long way toward attracting not only new players but quality ones. 

“There’s a lot of great mid-ams out there that may not win the tournament but have produced quality golf throughout the year that are able to possibly play as well,” Stasi said.

Of course, there are other avenues to pursue. Stasi is playing a global schedule this year, including the Ladies’ British Amateur, which happens to be on the exemption list. 

Timing-wise, the most pressing schedule conflict is the LPGA’s opening major, the ANA Inspiration. But LPGA commissioner Mike Whan navigated that gracefully, conceding that scheduling compromises might have to be made.

Josh Brewer, the women’s coach at the University of Georgia, knows that stress, too. The Augusta event would have overlapped Georgia’s long-running Liz Murphey Collegiate, but Brewer quickly finagled a schedule change. Now Georgia’s 2019 tournament will begin four days after the Augusta finale. Brewer lost one team, UC Davis, because the new tournament dates overlapped the Aggies’ conference championship.

Even if it came down to one of Brewer’s top players having to choose between the home tournament and a shot at Augusta (if the event were played tomorrow, Georgia’s low scorer, Jillian Hollis, would qualify by being among the top 30 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking), Brewer says he would send her up the road to compete on the big stage.

He speaks from experience. The early part of Georgia’s season was interrupted by three Bulldogs playing the first stage of LPGA Q-School. When the World Amateur Team Championship rolls around every two years, college coaches know not to schedule any big events. Losing players who are exempted into elite amateur or professional events is a fact of life in college golf. Brewer says managing it is all about communication.

“They were recruited to a top-10 program for a reason,” he said.

Brewer likens those conflicting tournament situations to players pursuing internships or post-graduate prep while still playing college golf.

“I want to win a national title every year, but I also want to make sure when these young ladies are 23, 24, 25, they have the best chance to succeed in whatever they choose. We have enough players on our roster to compete.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the kinks and oversights of this new opportunity, but the big picture at Augusta is one of extreme progress. Sacrifices will be made. The tournament will be historic, and remote corners of the game will experience unforeseen benefits because Augusta is now reachable for women. 

When Augusta calls, you answer the phone no matter the hour.

Julie Williams is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who teaches eighth-grade English and coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Email: hello@beyondthesundaydriver.com; Twitter: @BTSD_Jules