AUGUSTA, Ga. — In one groundbreaking, glass-shattering, never-thought-we’d-see-the-day moment, chairman Fred S. Ridley, a father to three daughters, made an announcement that sent shock waves through the sports world: A women’s amateur championship will be held at Augusta National Golf Club. Not since 13 trailblazing women signed a charter in 1950 to form the Ladies Professional Golf Association has something so significant come along to grow the women’s game.
Girls’ golf represents the game’s fastest growing segment, and this new championship represents the healthiest way to send those numbers into the stratosphere. The Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship will be contested on Saturday before the Masters, the day prior to the Drive Chip and Putt. While the adorably inspiring DCP has grown junior golf in ways we can’t yet even begin to fully measure, there’s always been a lopsided element to it. TV commentators and professional players talk about how the young boys competing on Augusta National’s practice grounds might one day play in the Masters. But for the girls, well, they’d only come back here as a patron or perhaps a caddie, like former World No. 1 Ariya Jutanguarn, in Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest. The ceiling for girls topped out on the practice tee.
But now, now they can dream of the next step: competing on these hallowed grounds in a televised stroke-play event seen the world over.
“I think it’s great now that golf is not only becoming a more democratic sport, but also putting women kind of on the same platform as men,” Stanford’s Albane Valenzuela said. “It’s great that it starts with amateurs.”
The ripple effects could add up to a tsunami of change. For starters, Augusta National has placed an enormous speed bump in the fast-tracking to the LPGA phenomenon. The initial goal for many will no longer be making it to the U.S. Women’s Open as fast as humanly possible followed by LPGA Qualifying School. The first goal now will be to make it to Augusta, Ga., where the invitation is extended only to amateurs.
This year the LPGA is offering exemptions into its final stage at the new Q Series to the top five players in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. It’s a carrot that seemed nearly impossible to turn down with players being able to skip the first two stages. That meant the brightest in college golf might leave prematurely, long before they’d planned.
The prospect of competing at Augusta National, however, could prolong college careers in a way the Curtis Cup and NCAA Championship never could.
“Really tough decisions, wow,” said Stanford’s Andrea Lee, who could easily find herself having to choose between the two next spring.
And then there’s the ANA Inspiration, the LPGA’s first major, traditionally held the week before the Masters. There’s a strong tradition of amateurs at ANA, with Valenzuela providing one of the best storylines of the week at this year’s edition, which had four amateurs make the cut.
The LPGA would be foolish to keep the ANA at its current date. It won’t be a quick fix with so many moving parts and contracts, but a necessary one. Top amateurs know the Dinah Shore Tournament Course will be waiting for them at the next level. Augusta National is a can’t-miss opportunity. Plus, the winner of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur gets as five-year exemption.
And while the time zone difference certainly helps the competing broadcast schedule, it seems reasonable to assume viewership numbers would be down competing against both the Final Four and any event taking place on the grounds of Augusta National. Not to mention the number of print media who will leave the desert early or not attend at all in favor of Augusta.
“While this announcement may create some initial challenges for our first major,” said LPGA commissioner Mike Whan in a statement, “navigating multiple opportunities for women’s golf is a good problem to have. We will work together with our partner ANA, the Masters and the media to ensure that the deserved winners in this will be the women (both professional and amateur) and the game of golf overall.”
The LPGA should not attempt to compete for attention against a women’s event at Augusta National. The most sensible thing to do would be to move the ANA one week ahead, still giving the women the season’s first major and serving as the perfect catalyst to Augusta’s growing showcase.
Who should be on hand to help present the trophy to the first female stroke-play champion at Augusta? Make Annika Sorenstam the first LPGA player to be extended membership at Augusta National. Simply imagining the scene of Sorenstam in a green jacket shaking the hand of a young female champion under the shadow of the Augusta pines is enough to send chills.
Fathers across the nation will put a club in the hands of their daughters in the hopes of seeing them one day compete at Augusta National. Fans who sign up for tickets only to see the golf course and buy merchandise will be in for a surprising treat. Women who don’t play golf but tune in to coverage only because they know something historic is taking place might stumble upon a new passion.
There’s a significant bullet point in the field selection criteria: The top 30 players from the United States in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking who have not otherwise qualified will receive an invitation. More than half the players currently ranked in the top 30 are from outside the U.S. That means that when young American girls tune in to watch this event, they will see a strong home contingent. One week doesn’t go by on the LPGA without the question – Why aren’t more Americans winning?
Bravo, Augusta National for placing an emphasis on American golf.
When Paula Creamer heard the big news, her mind immediately raced to a potential encore announcement. Could this be the gateway to a women’s major at Augusta National?
“Hopefully the next step will be professionals,” said Creamer.
After today, dare we say, anything is possible.