19th hole: Augusta National Women's Amateur was symbolic, but symbolism matters

Michael Madrid/USA TODAY Sports

19th hole: Augusta National Women's Amateur was symbolic, but symbolism matters

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19th hole: Augusta National Women's Amateur was symbolic, but symbolism matters

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Golf has an ignoble record on matters of inclusion, the residue of being a country club sport enjoyed by people disinclined to lower a ladder to others who aspire to share the privileges of membership. Exclusion long has been evident in formal policies — like corralling women into less desirable tee time windows — and informal practices, such as confining African Americans to the caddie barn or maintaining a discouragingly lengthy waiting list for prospective members who keep kosher.

That accumulated grime won’t be scraped away by one event, of course. Not even an event at Augusta National Golf Club. For many golf fans — and even more sports fans — the home of the Masters represents the pinnacle of the game, so what happens there has a disproportionate influence on golf’s image. It’s too early — by years, perhaps — to judge the impact of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Except for the competitors.

“I’m extremely excited to be a part of this historic event,” said Maria Fassi, who finished second.

“I have always wanted to experience what driving down Magnolia Lane would be like, and I never thought I would have the opportunity to actually do that,” said Alice Chen, who did just that Friday, albeit only for a practice round having missed the cut after 36 holes at Champions Retreat.

We can only hope the tournament has a positive impact on participation, but the first barrier to participation is perception, and the popular perception of golf as a sport played behind walls took another overdue hit this week. Augusta’s inaugural event was a showcase for women’s golf on its own merits — not measured against men, as was the case in other high-profile moments when Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie played in PGA Tour events.

The Women’s Amateur was symbolic, sure, but symbolism matters.

It matters too at the ANA Inspiration, the first women’s major of the year, contested opposite Augusta National’s tournament. Once known as the Dinah Shore, it is one of the LPGA Tour’s more storied stops. But the ANA is also home to one of the Tour’s more discordant traditions: the ceremonial leap by the winner into Poppie’s Pond by the 18th green.

Whether it’s a swan dive or a cannonball, the victor’s plunge is seldom graceful, but it is always cringeworthy.

Fans of the tradition — and there are many — will defend it as a unique, exuberant celebration by a newly minted major winner. Its critics — of which I’m one — see instead an antiquated stunt that trivializes both championship and champion.

The tradition didn’t begin with Amy Alcott in 1988, though she was the first to take the plunge. She was also the second to do so, when she won the title again in 1991. It wasn’t until Donna Andrews was handed a trophy and a robe in 1994 that the leap took root.

It hasn’t always been as smoothly manufactured as it is now. Pat Hurst and Yani Tseng were jittery because they couldn’t swim. Dottie Pepper surfaced in 1999 with an ear infection. A year later she pushed a victorious Karrie Webb into Poppie’s Pond then advised her to get antibiotics. Stacy Lewis’ mother fractured a bone in her leg when she joined the jump in 2011. The response to such concerns wasn’t to discontinue it, but to turn the pond into a man-made pool and add chlorine. That’s what happens when spontaneity is sponsored.

The Poppie’s Pond tradition isn’t wearisome for reasons of health and safety. The winner of the ANA Inspiration has accomplished a monumental feat in winning a major championship. Yet rather than celebrating it as a professional athletic achievement, she is instead expected to act like an over-served sorority sister at the end of a night’s partying and plunge fully clothed into a pond to cheers from onlookers.

It’s one thing for male players to spend time pondering their shirt choice for next Sunday in case they might have to coordinate it with a green jacket in a photo that long will outlive them. It’s something else entirely to force female golfers to choose their final-round fashions with the knowledge that victory will compel them into a glorified wet T-shirt contest.

It cheapens the moment, even if the winner and fans consider it fun. Hasten the day when the LPGA can dispense with dated antics designed to highlight the girlish high spirits of its players and instead focus on simply celebrating their high athletic achievement. Gwk


 
 

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