Michaux: Women's amateur event before Masters will have great impact
The Fred Ridley era opened with a bang on Masters eve.
The new chairman of Augusta National Golf Club made arguably the most impactful announcement since they decided to flip the nines in 1935, establishing an Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship in 2019 on the week before the Masters Tournament.
“This championship will become an exciting addition to the Masters Week, and it furthers our effort to promote the sport and inspire young women to take up the game,” Ridley said.
The event will invite 72 of the best international female amateurs to compete in a 54-hole stroke-play event that will culminate in the final round being played at Augusta National the Saturday before the Masters. The first 36 holes will be played at Champions Retreat in Evans, with a cut to the low 30 golfers and ties advancing to a televised final round at the home of the Masters.
Tickets will be made available in a lottery, extending opportunities for patrons to experience Augusta for nine consecutive days.
This was a significant first step in Ridley’s leadership considering he first suggested it to his senior staff in October.
“I thought that this was the right time to do this; it was the right time for the women’s game,” said Ridley, who has three daughters. “I wanted to do this, and I wanted to do it here. I thought for us to have the greatest impact on women’s golf that we needed to be committed to do it here at Augusta National, and I also wanted to be able to tell all of you about it today. So that was a pretty tall order to be given just five months ago.”
It’s not the first time the club has been willing to play host to a women’s event, with former Chairman Jack Stephens agreeing to let the club be used for golf in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. But that effort was scuttled by protests over the club’s exclusive membership policies.
The club has come a long way in 15 years since it famously refused to cave in to pressure regarding its all-male membership. Former Chairman Billy Payne introduced the club’s first two female members in 2012, breaking down a barrier that in short order inspired the R&A to pressure several exclusive clubs on the British Open rotation to change their own exclusive policies.
In 2014, the first female competitors were welcomed to Augusta National on the Sunday before Masters Week to participate in the annual Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals, providing an inspiration for young girls as well as boys to get involved in the game.
Now this opportunity signals the club’s commitment to being gender inclusive and offers a chance to inspire half of the world’s population to embrace golf.
“I think this is fantastic for women’s golf,” said Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, who was present for Wednesday’s announcement. “Women are the fastest growing segment in golf, and I think the time is right. This is a dream come true – the greatest stage and any golfer dreams about playing here.”
Laura Coble, a native Augustan and one of the most accomplished amateurs in Georgia golf history, was thrilled to hear the news.
“Augusta National clearly wants to honor the game, and that means all ages and all genders,” said Coble, who worked at the Masters as a teenager. “I’m excited to see it here and know that something of that stature can come to my hometown again. Overall it’s just a positive all the way around for golf in general.”
Augusta chairmen have often been asked through the years about creating a women’s Masters or even hosting a one-off event like the Solheim Cup. When he took the reins in October, Ridley said hosting something like that would be “almost impossible” considering the club’s limited season.
The last day of a women’s amateur event at the front end of Masters Week, however, made sense while also allowing for the time Masters participants need to prepare at Augusta National the week before the tournament.
“I think focusing on amateur golf is consistent with our history, with our co-founder, Bobby Jones,” Ridley said. “We also feel that that is the way that we can make the greatest impact in growing the game, and in this particular instance the women’s game. So we thought that was the better way to go and the better use of our resources. But having said that, I think over time that this will also be of great benefit to the women’s professional game as well.”
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, one of the first two female members at Augusta, lauded the decision.
“Augusta National has always had a great amateur tradition,” Rice said. “To add women amateurs to that tradition is a great idea. It’s going to be wonderful for the women’s game and it’s great for Augusta National.”
While Ridley’s grand gesture will garner all the headlines, his introductory news conference revealed more about his mission as chairman. As a former U.S. Amateur champion who competed in three Masters from 1976-78, a past president of the USGA and a former chairman of the competition committee at the Masters, Ridley is uniquely qualified to address the golf course, which was largely left alone during Payne’s 11-year reign as chairman.
Ridley certainly left the impression that he might use land behind Amen Corner purchased from Augusta Country Club to eventually lengthen the 13th hole.
“There’s a great quote from Bobby Jones dealing specifically with the 13th hole, which has been lengthened over time, and he said that the decision to go for the green in two should be a momentous one,” Ridley said. “And I would have to say that our observations of these great players hitting middle and even short irons into that hole is not a momentous decision.
"And so we think there is an issue, not only there, but in the game generally, that needs to be addressed. ... From our perspective, we will always do what’s necessary to maintain the integrity of our golf course.”
Despite the large shoes he’s filling, Wednesday’s first volley proved that Fred Ridley will not shy away from making his own mark in his mission as chairman.