Augusta National Golf Course, home of the annual Masters tournament that teed off on Thursday, is one of the most iconic venue in all of sports. It’s also one of the most sexist venues in all of sports — quite an accomplishment, considering the stiff competition.
Lately, though, there have been small signs of progress. In 2012, the club admitted its first two female members, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and billionaire businesswoman Darla Moore. Seven years later, the number of women at Augusta has doubled. Yes, that’s right — four of Augusta National’s approximately 300 members are women. (Please, hold your applause.)
This week, with the spotlight firmly on the club thanks to the most anticipated Masters tournament in years, Augusta National’s chairman announced another step forward: In 2019, the club will host the first ever Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship.
“I thought that this was the right time to do this,” the new Augusta chairman Fred Ridley said on Wednesday, a mere 68 years after the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association (LPGA) was formed. “It was the right time for the women’s game.”
Golf Magazine referred this to as “one of the most radical moves in Augusta National’s recent history.” And while that might be true considering the club’s storied history of exclusion, it’s important to look beyond the fanfare and fawning headlines to examine the realities of this announcement.
First of all, it’s not correct to state that Augusta National is now hosting a full women’s tournament. The Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship is a 54-hole stroke-play event, but only the final 18 holes will be played at Augusta. That round will take place on the Saturday before the Masters. The first 36 holes will be played at a nearby site.
Seventy-two amateurs will enter the tournament, and entrants will be determined based on the winners of various amateur championships and the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking. However, only 30 players will make the cut for the final round — the one that is actually played on the hallowed grounds of Augusta.
Secondly, while Ridley said the event will incorporate the “best 72 players in the world,” that won’t be the case given its own restrictions. As the tournament name suggests, this is not an event for LPGA players. It’s only for amateurs, meaning players who are currently playing professionally and for profit aren’t allowed to enter.
Which brings us to the event’s biggest flaw: timing. While it does make sense to try and incorporate this event into the lead-up to the Masters, this event also clashes mightily with the LPGA’s calendar. In fact, it will be held during the exact same time as the LPGA’s first major championship of the year, the ANA Inspiration.
Not only will that create a dilemma for top amateurs in the world — do they attempt to qualify for the ANA Inspiration so they can test themselves against the best players in the game? Or do they play at Augusta? — it also could potentially divide the audience for women’s golf. After all, Ridley said during his press conference that he wants this to event to be televised globally and available to watch on digital platforms.
That is wonderful, but considering the spectacle and history involved with women competing at Augusta, it also runs the risk of overshadowing the ANA Inspiration. Women’s golf needs the LPGA to grow, and what the LPGA needs more than anything right now is for its top events and top players to receive heightened interest, investment, and attention from the most powerful entities in golf. In other words, this event seems designed to raise the profile of Augusta National, not to raise the profile of professional women’s golf.
Hopefully that’s not the case. Christine Brennan of USA Today says the LPGA and Augusta National are in discussions about the scheduling conflict, which is a positive sign. And it is important to note that this was Ridley’s first major announcement as chairman; he certainly can’t be blamed for the club’s bigoted history. But he should be expected to fully understand it.
“Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts left behind a legacy of always trying to contribute meaningfully to the game of golf,” Ridley said during his announcement. “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 energize those who already love the sport and inspire others through the dream of competing at Augusta National.”
Invoking the contributions of Jones and Roberts to the game of golf in a press conference about women at Augusta National is a bit hard to stomach. While they did build this iconic course together, they also ensured the club was a bastion of racism and sexism long after their deaths — in addition to not having a female member until 2012, it didn’t desegregate until 1991.
Ridley, who the press would like to remind you has three daughters, dreams of a world where golf is color-blind and gender-blind, which is a lovely sentiment. But Augusta National is one of the most powerful entities in the sport, and because of that, its legacy of excluding women has been a huge factor in the golf world as a whole treating women as second-class citizens within the game. It’s going to take a lot more than hosting 30 amateurs for 18 holes.
Yes, incremental progress is still progress. But it’s long past time to pick up the pace.