News & Opinion

Augusta event won't do much for women

Fred Ridley will never have the commanding presence and charisma of Billy Payne, the man whom Ridley succeeded as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club. Ridley, however, did make quite a splash last year, his first as chairman, with the introduction of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

The announcement and the ensuing buildup to the inaugural ANWA on April 3-6 has drawn predictably fawning media coverage. It has been another reminder that the men who run Augusta National are outstanding business executives. They are, first and foremost, great managers of the Augusta National brand. Every year they take the game’s weakest major-championship field, spread it across a magnificent venue, sprinkle in some charming traditions, limit the TV coverage, and produce the most exciting golf week of the year.

It’s brilliant. No one enjoys the Masters more than I do.

Lately, though, Augusta National has tried to expand its brand. Under Payne and Ridley, the club has sought to portray itself as a custodian of golf, intent on “growing the game” – a particularly hackneyed phrase in light of steadily declining participation.

And so, we get the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Contrary to Ridley’s official statement, the tournament won’t have any “significant and lasting impact on the future of the women’s game.”

For one thing, Ridley and company are welcoming female amateurs onto their hallowed grounds only for the final round (and a practice round that, oddly, is squeezed between the second and third rounds). The first two rounds will be played at nearby Champions Retreat. That doesn’t suggest Augusta National has much invested in this new tournament. Rather, it strikes me as an effort by the club to make the absolute minimum commitment and, in turn, bask in all of the praise.

That’s a perfectly reasonable strategy for Augusta National or any other business intent on managing its brand. But everyone is overreaching to suggest that this tournament is going to have more than a negligible impact on the women’s game.

It was less than a decade ago that Augusta National was taking heat for not having any female members. Then in 2012, Payne, a first-rate marketer, announced that the club would admit two prominent female executives, including a former secretary of state.

Boom. Problem solved. Next issue.

The next year, Payne announced the formation of the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship. For one morning each year, children are escorted around a small portion of the property and allowed to hit a few shots and trade awkward high-fives with Masters champions and septuagenarian members. On any other day, those same children would be shooed away like gnats by the guards who patrol Magnolia Lane. But on that Sunday morning, at the start of Masters week, the groveling TV coverage shows Augusta National in the best possible light.

Augusta National’s token overtures to women and children have a positive effect on one party: Augusta National. And that’s fine. That makes perfect business sense for the club. But let’s not kid ourselves by saying these moves have a broader impact on the game.

Take Drive, Chip & Putt and the issue of youth participation.

“Everybody wants to do junior golf [programs], and it’s a worthwhile thing to do, but with all the programs we’ve put into junior golf, those numbers continue to go down,” industry analyst Jim Koppenhaver said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

No one studies participation data more closely than Koppenhaver, and the numbers he cited were alarming. In 2002, the industry was approaching 30 million players – defined as logging at least one round per year – in the U.S. Now that figure is fewer than 21 million, and Koppenhaver predicts we’re headed south of 20 million within a few years.

It gets worse when you drill down. Koppenhaver noted that the biggest declines are among females, juniors and under-$75,000 households.

“For better or worse, golf is retreating back into its core population, which is older, affluent males,” he said.

From 2010 to 2017, the total number of female golfers who played at least one round of golf annually declined from 6.6 million to 5.4 million. From 2016 to 2017, the number of female golfers fell about 2 percent, which actually was an improvement over the five-year average annual decline of 4 percent. Juniors have “gotten crushed,” Koppenhaver said – down from 3.3 million to 1.9 million during those eight years – though he noted that junior participation was basically flat in 2017.

“What we’re doing for women and juniors isn’t working,” Koppenhaver said.

There are two things that historically have been proven to create more golfers: strong family units in which the parents introduce their children to the game, and youth caddieing, which used to provide an entrée into golf for teenagers who would not otherwise have had the means to play the game.

The breakdown of the traditional family unit is a broader cultural problem. I suspect that the vast majority of members at Augusta National and other private clubs learned the game from their parents, particularly their fathers. Ridley, a former U.S. Amateur champion, referenced this truth when he noted that his three daughters play golf. That’s great, but it’s becoming increasingly quaint given the rise of single-parent households.

Caddieing, meanwhile, has become almost the exclusive domain of middle-aged men hanging around the golf club, looking for a loop and a $100 under-the-table payment. That’s fine if players can afford it, though for most of us, it doesn’t stand up to the most basic cost-benefit analysis. With the exception of a few enlightened programs, the notion of poor and middle-class teenagers picking up weekend loops, collecting modest but meaningful payments, and getting some level of exposure and mentoring from successful adults has become an anachronism.

The other problem with the Augusta National Women’s Amateur is the headaches it creates for others.

The LPGA was blindsided last year by news of the ANWA. LPGA commissioner Mike Whan publicly expressed his support, though he noted that it “may create some initial challenges.”

If I were Whan, I’d still be fuming about the ANWA. The LPGA’s second-biggest championship is the ANA Inspiration, which has long been held the week before the Masters. Now, Augusta National essentially is dictating to the LPGA that it will need to move the ANA to a different spot on the calendar to make way for the club’s single-round amateur publicity event on the Saturday before the Masters.

This also created a quandary for top female amateurs: ANA or ANWA? The LPGA allows up to six amateur invitations to the ANA in Palm Springs, Calif. So, some of the top amateurs had to make a decision: Did they want to play one round at Augusta National or compete for a major championship at the ANA? This strikes me as a no-brainer – head west, young ladies, and try to make history – though some of the top amateurs wrestled with that decision.

There’s no reason why Augusta National couldn’t hold its Women’s Amateur at another time of the year. And if the club truly wanted to demonstrate its commitment to promoting women’s golf, it would hold the entire tournament at Augusta National rather than farming out the first two rounds to a neighboring club.

I suspect, however, that the club’s true objective for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur is to extend Masters week activities and the business that comes with it, while making the smallest possible commitment.

That’s good for the Augusta National brand, but it does little or nothing for women’s golf.

Martin Kaufmann has covered golf for more than two decades, including 16 years with Golfweek. He lives in Orlando, Fla., and works as a freelancer. Email: Twitter: @MartinGKaufmann