“What an idea, isn’t it?” said Augusta National member Condoleezza Rice, who was sporting one of the club’s famed green jackets.
Rice, the former US Secretary of State, was among the first female members invited to join the club in 2012. Until then, Augusta National Golf Club was an all-male bastion for America’s powerbrokers that was slow to change with the times, to put it mildly. The proud, nay, haughty old place acts as if it is perhaps the lone independent state left under the constitution.
Its history with women bears repeating. When Martha Burk, the chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organization, led a crusade to force the club to open its membership in 2002, then Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson said it would not acquiesce “at the point of a bayonet”.
Burk organised a picket on nearby Washington Road during the 2003 Masters, but her efforts proved futile. Augusta National is a private club that can do as it likes, but given its lofty place in the game and that it opens its gates one week a year to the public, its actions made golf look unwelcoming to half the population.
Johnson died in July, and several months later Billy Payne passed the baton to Fred Ridley, a 65-year-old lawyer and father of three daughters, who became the club’s seventh chairman. He couldn’t possibly have started his tenure with a more groundbreaking announcement.
The stroke-play event will be 54 holes, with the field determined by winners of recognised championships and placement on the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking.
The first 36 holes will take place at Champions Retreat Golf Club nearby, with 30 players making the cut and advancing to the final round at Augusta National on April 6, the Saturday before the Masters begins. The event will be televised but the winner will not get a green jacket.
Similar to the Drive, Chip, and Putt competition, which is held the Sunday before the Masters for boys and girls aged 7-15, tickets for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship will be distributed via a lottery.
“Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts left behind a legacy of always trying to contribute meaningfully to the game of golf,” Ridley said.
“The Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship embodies that principle, and we believe this event will have a significant and lasting impact on the future of the women’s game. Our hope and expectation is that this event will further energise those who already love the sport and inspire others through the dream of competing at Augusta National.”
The Augusta Chronicle called it “arguably the most impactful announcement since (the club) decided to flip the nines in 1935”.
Beth Ann Nichols, a senior writer for Golfweek and one of the chief chroniclers of the women’s game, said that “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.”
Sportswriter Frank Deford once described the Augusta National layout as “like falling through a magnolia hole into golf Wonderland.”
Such is the love golfers feel for these hallowed grounds. In recent years, Augusta National has been a leader in advancing the global game, creating the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship in 2009 and Latin America Amateur Championship in 2014 to help promote the game in those regions.
In 2013, it spearheaded the Drive, Chip, and Putt Championship, a free nationwide junior golf development competition aimed at growing the game by focusing on the three fundamental skills employed in golf.
Eighty participants who advanced through local, subregional, and regional qualifying in each age and gender category earn a place in the National Finals at Augusta National. But until the announcement of the women’s amateur, there was a disconnect in that only the male golfers could dream of returning to play in a national tournament here.
“I think it’s something that I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” three-time Masters champion Gary Player, 82, said.
“To hear an initiative like this where young women get the opportunity to play on the greatest stage in golf, it doesn’t get any better than that,” said Annika Sorenstam, who holds the record for the most victories on the LPGA Tour.
“We all know that junior golfers are the fastest growing segment in the game of golf. This is another opportunity for these girls to dream. Little girls have dreams too, and this is great news.”
Indeed, it is. One potential candidate for next year’s inaugural competition texted back to a friend to say, “Can’t talk. Already practising.”
Asked if she would consider applying for reinstatement to amateur status, the retired professional Sorenstam chuckled and said, “These young girls are too good.”