Augusta National to host women’s amateur tournament

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Fred Ridley (right), with former chairman Hootie Johnson in 2008, is establishing a women’s amateur championship. Getty Images

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Fifteen years ago this week, Augusta National Golf Club was immersed in one of the lowest points in the history of equal rights for women in sports and in our culture. It was the week of Hootie-Martha, the knock-down, drag-out battle over the lack of women members at the home of the Masters, a private golf course that has always been one of the nation’s most prominent corridors of power.

During those contentious days in April 2003, the thought that the club would not only admit women members but would also someday host the final round of a tournament for women amateurs was unthinkable.

The march of time, it turns out, works in mysterious ways.

In August 2012, Augusta National brought in its first two female members.

On Wednesday, new chairman Fred Ridley stunningly announced that the club is establishing the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship next year, a 54-hole event for the world’s top amateur players that will finish on the Saturday before the Masters, with the final 18 holes at Augusta National “the most prominent platform women’s golf will have ever received.

“I met with our senior staff in October and said that I thought that this was the right time to do this,” Ridley said. “It was the right time for the women’s game. 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.”

What in the name of Hootie Johnson is going on? It was nearly 16 years ago that Johnson, then Augusta National’s chairman, uttered the infamous line that the club would not be pressured to invite women members “at the point of a bayonet.” He was responding very publicly to a private letter sent to him by Martha Burk, then chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations.

Here’s what’s going on: Augusta National is not your father’s golf course anymore. At least not entirely. When younger men were put in charge, they realized the old sexist ways of the past just could not continue. It was bad for the game. And it was bad for business.

If women and girls were not an entirely untapped market for the golf industry, they certainly were the game’s biggest potential growth sector. But, as the game hemorrhaged participants due to its price tag, elitist reputation and time-consuming rounds, it employed the most ridiculous strategy any titans of industry — and there are many of them at Augusta — had ever employed to try to reach 51 percent of the U.S. population: discourage them at almost every turn.

This philosophy began to look even worse with Title IX producing wave upon wave of women athletes, millions of them, all of them wanting to play sports for the entirety of their lives.

The last two Augusta National chairmen decided enough was enough. First, Billy Payne brought in former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore as the club’s first two women members, followed by IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. It is believed there is a fourth woman who also is a member now, although the club closely guards those details.

If there are about 300 members at Augusta National, then little more than one percent are women. That’s clearly not good, but let’s look at the bright side: three or four is better than zero.

And, as Ridley said, it is going to get better: “While I won’t go into specifics, I will assure you that there will be more women members at Augusta National.”

Ridley took things to a whole new level in his first news conference as chairman. In announcing that the most revered club in the world would be hosting the final round of a women’s tournament, he instantly gave the women’s game the kind of credibility and respect it has never received from golf’s powers that be. There will be a scheduling conflict to work out with the first women’s major of the year, the ANA Inspiration, but the LPGA and Augusta National have already been in discussions about that.

“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,” Ridley said. “I just felt it was time to do that. I happen to have three daughters, and they all love golf.”

So it is a 65-year-old father of three daughters who decided that it is time Augusta National play a more significant role in our national conversation about equality for women in America. In other words, good old Augusta National just announced “Time’s Up.”

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