News & Opinion

Augusta makes good start with ANWA

Maria Fassi didn’t win the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Still, before she walked off the 18th green at the end of the final round April 6, she turned and raised her arms to a crowd so thick that the back rows couldn't even see that gesture. The ones who did roared in response.

Fassi, an Arkansas senior from Mexico, locked up LPGA status for the 2019 season back in October. So did ANWA winner Jennifer Kupcho, a Wake Forest senior from Westminster, Colo. They’ll turn professional in the coming months, but they may never play in front of a crowd that size again. Let that sink in.

That’s a good place to start when it comes to addressing the question of whether the inaugural tournament was a success. There is no black-and-white answer, and there aren’t hard numbers or statistics yet that point toward a definitive yes or no. Exposure seems to be a good place to start in terms of immediate success. While we don’t have an exact idea of the ANWA’s reach, it will be easier to answer another question as time passes: How does that exposure translate into participation?

Younger players in the Masters – and now in the ANWA –routinely are asked for their earliest Masters memories or their Augusta ambitions. Atthaya Thitikul, No. 9 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, hadn’t thought much about it.

“Augusta, it’s so hard to get in there because I’m a woman, not a man. All the players are top in the world, really good players coming to play Augusta,” said the 16-year-old Thai, the winner of last year’s inaugural Asia-Pacific Women’s Amateur. Thitikul missed the 36-hole ANWA cut.

Contrast that with this year’s scene. Leigh Anne Creavy (nee Hardin) is a former Duke All-American and USGA champion (1998 U.S. Girls’ Junior). She brought daughter Riley to the final round of the ANWA to watch her goddaughter Erica Shepherd, a Duke signee, compete.

Riley wore the same polo shirt that Shepherd had worn as a 5-year-old when she came to the Masters as a patron. It fit her like a dress.

“I sat in the parking lot, and I just filmed the droves of people coming in,” Creavy said in amazement at the end of the day. Riley requested another weekend just like it.

After hitting one of four ceremonial tee shots to start the final round, Annika Sorenstam, a World Golf Hall of Fame member, walked the final round with her husband and two young children. Daughter Ava specifically wanted to follow Fassi, whom she had gotten to know after Fassi won the Annika Award, which recognizes the most outstanding Division I female collegian, last spring.

For every kid whose parent – famous or not – brought her along to Augusta, there were potentially hundreds more who had a parent park her in front of the broadcast, perhaps explaining the significance of what was happening. It’s a very subtle step forward, but eventually, nobody in the ANWA field will give an answer like Thitikul’s.

After this month’s inaugural event, one definitively can say that women’s amateur golf never has known the hype that came with a televised round at Augusta National. The players spent the week pinching themselves. Their college coaches did, too. The most frequently expressed sentiment was a soft-spoken one: “Can you believe this is really happening?”

Media members, with reach into all corners of the game, told stories of players whom many of them had never seen.

“I think this tournament got so much coverage that everyone wants to play here, and there's no bigger stage than this for amateur golf,” Kupcho said.

Highlights of Kupcho and Fassi’s back-nine duel still were rolling well into Masters week. Major winners mentioned ANWA players by name in their pre-tournament news conferences. Women starred in weekend ad spots during Masters coverage.

All of these things are unprecedented.

Though thousands showed up and/or tuned in for the final round of the ANWA, a large majority of those realistically were pulled into the event by the course itself. While they were there, they learned about a part of the game they’d maybe never considered. The spectacle of Augusta National transcends golf and reaches sports fans in general.

On Saturday, it almost felt like a gift. Before the ANWA, the history between Augusta National and women hadn’t been exemplary. There isn’t going to be an apology, and frankly, I like this route better anyway. It’s forward progress. Augusta National has a platform to which people pay attention, and this month, club leaders welcomed female amateurs onto it. For now, can we appreciate that for what it is?

Critics honed in on several things throughout ANWA week: that the first two rounds were played off-site; that a practice round was scheduled between the second and third rounds; and that the field was cut to exactly 30 players for the final round at Augusta National. But the fact remains that the door opened, and there is plenty of time for this event to keep evolving.

Julie Williams covers amateur golf for AmateurGolf.com. She is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Email: hello@beyondthesundaydriver.com; Twitter: @BTSD_Jules