Augusta National, the home of one of golf’s most prestigious tournaments and a club that until 2012 excluded women from membership, has crowned its first ever female champion: it’s Kelly Xu, a nine-year-old Californian who won her division at the first ever national Drive, Chip and Putt Championship this weekend. The event, which Augusta launched during last year’s Masters, drew 17,000 applications for entry for girls and boys up to age 15, and 88 of them went to Augusta National this weekend to compete for the championship, according to USA Today.
Her victory in the nine-and-under division made Xu the first female to win a golfing championship of any sort at Augusta National, which will host the 78th edition of The Masters, one of golf’s four major tournaments, starting Thursday (three other girls won their respective age divisions later to join her). Xu has been playing golf since she was four and loves the game, as USA Today’s Steve DiMeglio reports:
“I love golf because you need to practice and you need patience,” said Xu, who with her sister Kristina, 6, has watched the “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius” tape at least 50 times. “You can start practicing and get good at it and you can play golf your whole life.”
For years, no amount of practice or patience opened the doors of Augusta to women and girls like Xu. The club, famous for its green jacket-clad champions and members, was the focus of protests because of its male-only membership policy, which it finally broke in 2012 when it admitted former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and business executive Darla Moore as its first female members.
As much as breaking that barrier represented progress at Augusta, the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship — and the four female champions it crowned — has the potential to have an even larger impact on the game of golf. The Masters, the Professional Golf Association, and the United States Golf Association partnered to start the event precisely to help grow the game, which has seen its American participation rates fall precipitously in recent years. A 2012 report from the National Golf Foundation found that the sport had lost nearly 4 million participants in the previous five years, and participation declines were sharp among both women (23 percent) and juniors (35 percent).
There are any number of reasons for that decline — the cost of the game, the time it takes to play, and the rising popularity of other country club sports like tennis are all among them — but golf still carries a reputation as an elite, exclusive sport that often isn’t open and accessible to many people, women and minorities chief among them. That perception is only bolstered by the fact that one of the game’s most recognizable tournament is held annually at a course that’s still behind the curve on gender (and racial) equality, and even if that isn’t the biggest reason golf is declining in popularity, it can’t help the sport.
Making itself open to more groups of people — women and minorities especially — might not solve golf’s participation problems, but it would certainly help. Opening its doors, even briefly, to young women like Xu and the others who participated in the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship is a positive step in continuing to address the issues Augusta has helped perpetuate in the past, and hopefully it’s a sign that the most iconic course in American golf will continue to take a leadership role in improving both itself and the sport in the future.