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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Fifteen years after Martha Burk was relegated to a nearby park to protest the all-male membership of Augusta National Golf Club, new chairman Fred Ridley sat behind a news conference podium and made a historic announcement.
Starting in 2019, the club will host the final round of the newly created Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship. It will take place on the Saturday before Masters week and annually allow the very best women’s amateur players in the world to compete on the famed course in all its glory.
It is the first women’s event the club has ever hosted.
“I thought that this was the right time to do this,” Ridley said. “It was the right time for the women’s game.”
It isn’t a full-blown LPGA professional event, a Women’s Masters if you will, as some have called for through the years. The first two rounds will take place at the nearby Champions Retreat Golf Club so not to interfere with preparation for the Masters. The winner will not receive a green jacket, as Masters winners do, but Ridley promised they’d come up with something that would prove to be “iconic” and “very, very nice.”
This may not be everything, but it is a massive step for a club that has long wrestled, and often failed, in seeking inclusion and fairness. It promises big crowds and great fanfare. And it is unlikely to be the last step either under the leadership of Ridley, who took over for Billy Payne last year.
The opportunity for women to play competitively at Augusta National, their images beamed around the globe, could have a seismic impact on the growth and popularity of the game, especially for young golfers.
“As a little girl, knowing that you have a chance to play on the greatest stage in golf?” said Annika Sorenstam, the eight time LPGA player of the year winner. “That would have sent me to the range.”
It is also a small, but staggering development for Augusta National that didn’t even have a female member until 2012, when Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore were invited to join.
“Our country is a story of our great institutions evolving and becoming more inclusive,” said Rice, the former Secretary of State. “This is one of those great institutions. It’s evolved and become more inclusive … What a great idea.”
Ridley, 65, is a real estate lawyer from Florida and a former competitive golfer. He first came to Augusta National when he competed as an amateur in the 1976 Masters. He took over for Payne last August. By October he met with the club’s staff and said he wanted to put together an event for women to compete here as soon as possible. There would be no paralysis of meetings and planning. The task was to make something happen.
A father of three girls with a self-described “burning passion” to grow the game, Ridley was determined to further use Augusta National’s considerable resources and bully pulpit to encourage female players. While the club has long sponsored programs such as The First Tee, that includes both boy’s and girl’s, there is nothing like hosting an event here. As recently as two years ago, Payne, brushed off the idea of a Women’s Masters, saying the club was maxed out running one event.
“I don’t think so,” Payne said. ” … I don’t think we would ever host another tournament.”
The Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship is not a full women’s tournament that would require the use of the club for a full week. It will be a 54-hole stroke-play event with the first 36 played nearby. The final round on Saturday will be at Augusta National. Sunday the club will continue to host the popular Drive, Chip & Putt Championship, which features boys and girls ages 7-15 from around America. On Monday, Masters week will begin with practice rounds for the men.
The challenge of adding a full women’s tour event is considerable. The club season here is just seven months and every day spent running a tournament is one less day it is being used by the members. That said, this isn’t a traditional country club. With a national membership of extremely wealthy and prominent people, it is more of a vacation destination than some place to grab a quick evening nine after a day at the office.
Time will tell, though. This may beget a true Women’s Masters. Just starting this was a major step in that direction. Just seven years ago this club didn’t see the value of even having a female member. Now there is a signature women’s event coming.
Rice acknowledged she didn’t know exactly what to expect when she agreed to become a trailblazing member here, but she’s found Augusta National warm, welcoming and respectful. She said it’s also been a lot of fun.
“It’s been everything I hoped it would be,” Rice said.
Ridley praised the contributions of the club’s small number of female members, believed to just be three. He also promised there will be more in the future.
It’s clear this was one announcement of many to come. When Ridley assumed the chairmanship, many believed his background as a competitive golfer (as a collegian at the University of Florida he qualified for three Masters, a U.S. Open and a British Open) would cause him to zero in on competitive issues in the game. He didn’t shy away from that Wednesday but also struck a tone that suggested a chairmanship focused on progressing, not just stewarding, the game of golf.
“Well, I hope with this announcement today you have a pretty good idea of part of what my mission is,” Ridley said.
“I just felt that there was an opportunity and a platform to make a statement as to how we feel about this part of the game,” he continued. “I just felt it was time to do that. I happen to have three daughters, and they all love golf. They’re not really very good players, but they all love the game. And I know they’re going to be really excited about this.”
Things change slow at Augusta National. They do change, though. Wednesday was a significant movement in a direction that not so long ago seemed impossible.
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