Nichols: No easy answers for LPGA with addition of Augusta National Women’s Amateur

Mar 30, 2018; Rancho Mirage, CA, USA; Lexi Thompson tees off on the fifth hole during the second round of the ANA Inspiration women's golf tournament at Mission Hills CC - Dinah Shore Tournament Course. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports

Nichols: No easy answers for LPGA with addition of Augusta National Women’s Amateur

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Nichols: No easy answers for LPGA with addition of Augusta National Women’s Amateur

LOS ANGELES – LPGA commissioner Mike Whan found out about the new Augusta National Women’s Amateur not long before the rest of the world. That’s significant and disappointing in that it gave Whan less than a year to address a perplexing schedule conflict: The Augusta amateur event will be held the same week as the LPGA’s first major.

Brittany Lincicome’s reaction to the news fell in line with a lot of folks.

“I wish I was an amateur,” the two-time major winner said. “I’ve never gotten to play Augusta. I’m super jealous.”

When told the dates for the new event conflict with the ANA Inspiration, Lincicome crinkled her brow and said, “There’s always a catch, isn’t there?”

Golfweek sat down with the LPGA commissioner at the inaugural HUGEL-JTBC L.A. Open to talk about how the tour might respond. The setting of the conversation – the veranda at Wilshire Country Club, a gem of a course in the heart of Los Angeles – points to the current strength of the women’s game. The tour’s domestic schedule is hearty. Women’s majors are headed to Pebble Beach, The Olympic Club and Hazeltine National in the coming years.

CHONBURI, THAILAND - FEBRUARY 23: Jessica Korda of United States smiles during the Honda LPGA Thailand at Siam Country Club on February 23, 2018 in Chonburi, Thailand. (Photo by Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images)

Jessica Korda is one of many LPGA pros who wish they had the chance to play Augusta as amateurs. (Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images)

In ANA, Whan found an eager sponsor that has invested in significant add-ons such as the ANA Inspiring Women in Sports Conference and ANA Junior Inspiration, which rewards the winner a spot in the major. All Nippon Airways signed a three-year contract extension April 1.

Should the LPGA move its first major to avoid a conflict with Augusta? There’s certainly no consensus on the subject among players, who by and large don’t know the intricacies of such a move, particularly on such short notice. The 54-hole event at Augusta National concludes April 6, the Saturday before the Masters.

“They’re an amateur tournament, we’re a professional major,” Cristie Kerr said. “I don’t think we should have to move our professional major because there’s a one-round event at Augusta National for amateurs.”

Conversely, Emma Talley believes that LPGA Founders would want amateurs to have the opportunity to compete in both. The former NCAA and U.S. Women’s Amateur champion said she would choose to compete at Augusta over the ANA if she were still an amateur, despite the fact that playing at Mission Hills as an amateur in years past helped the LPGA rookie finish T-37 at the ANA this year.

“I feel like playing Augusta is not a golf goal,” Talley said. “It’s a personal goal.”

Augusta in ‘on our bucket list’

Lexi Thompson, like many of her peers, was surprised the first women’s event held on the iconic course will be for amateurs.

“I think we all as women want to play there,” Thompson said. “It’s on our bucket list.”

Morgan Pressel screamed into the phone when former tournament director Terry Wilcox called to offer her a spot in the Kraft Nabisco as an amateur in 2005. Pressel tied for 19th that year as a 16-year-old, then won the championship at 18.

“There are some things that definitely need to be worked out,” Pressel said. “I hope they will be because if not, neither party really wins, but it could be such a wonderful thing for all of women’s golf and they don’t have to fight each other, in a sense.”

What seemed an obvious fix, at least for one year – to flip-flop the Kia Classic and the ANA – has a significant consequence for TV.

Right now the ANA Inspiration offers 20 hours of live television coverage. Moving one week back puts the women’s major up against the PGA Tour’s Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin. That could mean tape-delayed coverage for early rounds of the ANA and a significant drop in the live window on the weekend. Tape-delayed coverage for an LPGA major would be a controversy in itself.

“The major experience is priority No. 1,” Whan said.

Finding open weeks on resort and country club calendars in peak seasons isn’t easy inside of a year’s time. To hold the ANA after the Masters gets into Coachella, hotter weather and a mass exodus of seasonal residents who volunteer and fill the stands. The course, as Jessica Korda said, is near flawless at its current week.

Any ANA movement unlikely in 2019

Even if Whan was desperate to move the event – he’s pouring over options at this time – it might not happen for 2019.

That’s not to say it won’t happen down the road, of course, but the first edition of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur will generate the most attention from media, players and potentially fans. And there’s no doubt the ANA will take a hit.

This entire exercise might have been avoided had the LPGA had more time to move the chess pieces. But that’s not the style of Augusta National. They make the moves, and the rest of the golf world adjusts.

Lauren Stephenson, one of the top Americans in the amateur game, grew up about an hour from Augusta National in Lexington, S.C. The Alabama junior was in class when Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley announced the new women’s amateur event. Her phone blew up.

The first time Stephenson went to the Masters in 2007 with her dad, she sat near the 18th green while her dad walked the course and collected cups full of golf balls from players. On the drive home she looked through her spoils and asked: Who is Zach Johnson?

Johnson, of course, put on the green jacket that Sunday. But that wasn’t the only question Lauren asked. “Why can’t I play there?” was a more difficult one for her father, Charles, to answer. Now he doesn’t have to.

“That I could be a part of the first women’s event there is mind-blowing,” Lauren said.

How can you say ‘no’ to Augusta?

Jessica Korda, a self-described Augusta nerd, joked about getting her amateur status back for the event. As an unwitting youngster, she thought playing in the Masters was a reasonable goal.

“How do you tell a kid to play in the ANA if they have the opportunity to play at Augusta National the Saturday before (the Masters) and you see all the PGA Tour players getting ready?” Korda said. “Honestly. How?”

Danielle Kang chooses to look beyond the date conflict and focus on what she believes is a step forward.

“I don’t want it to be so greedy,” Kang said. “I’m just really thankful that there is a women’s tournament at Augusta. I think that’s a huge move. That’s what I keep telling people, whatever the dates are, whatever the event is … at the end of the day, for the first time in the history of golf, there’s a women’s tournament at Augusta National. I think that itself is beauty.”

J.S. Kang, a longtime player agent and now tournament director of the L.A. Open, also has taken a big-picture perspective, believing it’s a positive that the golf entity that has the most equity is, for the first time, acknowledging the quality and legitimacy of women’s golf.

“In order for women’s golf to be elevated,” he said, “a significant event has to shift the mind space of people in the way they think about women’s golf, like what Battle of the Sexes did for women’s tennis.”

More of the same on the LPGA schedule won’t accomplish that, he continued. Women competing at Augusta could be the trigger.

Of course this could’ve been handled in a collaborative way that would’ve not only kept amateurs from making a tough decision, but the LPGA’s first major from competing against Augusta National for exposure.

But it wasn’t.

The LPGA staff must now turn its focus to what’s best for the long-term growth of the women’s game and its tour. When Whan took over a struggling LPGA in 2010, no one could’ve believed that the women’s game would now face such a dilemma. Augusta didn’t even admit its first female members until 2012.

“They’re the giant,” J.S. Kang said of Augusta National. “They’re the elephant. And when an elephant moves, many things have to shift.” Gwk

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