AUGUSTA, Ga. — In his first press conference since taking over for Billy Payne as Masters chairman last fall, Fred Ridley sent a clear message that growing the game would be a continued focus for Augusta National Golf Club with the unveiling of a new club-sponsored tournament targeting women’s golf.
Debuting in 2019, Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship will be a 54-hole stroke-play tournament that features an international field of 72 players. Most noteworthy is the fact that the final round will be contested at Augusta National the Saturday prior to the Masters Tournament (with the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals held the next day).
“This championship will become an exciting addition to Masters Week, and it furthers our effort to promote the sport and inspire young women to take up the game,” Ridley said. “Now, just imagine the 40 girls who come here each year for the Drive, Chip and Putt national finals will be able to dream about returning here one day to compete on a much grander stage for another impressive title.”
Invitations to compete in the event will be awarded to winners of various recognized championships around the world: the U.S. Women’s Amateur, Ladies’ British Open Amateur, Women’s Amateur Asia Pacific, U.S. Girls’ Junior, Girls’ Junior PGA and Girls’ British Open Amateur. Additionally, the top-30 U.S. golfers off the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking will receive invitations, and the next 30 highest ranked players not otherwise in the field will also qualify.
The opening two rounds will be held at Champions Retreat Golf Club in nearby Evans, Ga., after which the low 30 scores will advance to play Augusta National.
How long the initiative had been under consideration is not certain. Ridley noted that in October, shortly after taking over the club chairmanship from Payne, he met with senior staff to express his interest in launching the event in 2019.
“I thought that this was the right time to do this,” Ridley said. “It was the right time for the women’s game. 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, and I also wanted to be able to tell all of you about it today.”
The tournament comes on the heels of the introduction of the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship, the Latin America Amateur and the Drive, Chip and Putt as events that will help increase interest in the game and drive more boys and girls to take up the sport.
“My first reaction is this is such a wonderful moment for women’s golf,” noted Condoleezza Rice, a member at Augusta National Golf Club. “This is great for the game and great for Augusta. As a teacher at Stanford, I have a close relationship with the women's amateur game and have witnessed the talent that they have, so this is an exciting opportunity for them to come here and compete and experience Augusta National Golf Club.”
LPGA great Annika Sorenstam was in attendance at the press conference (she said that she had been made privy to the announcement earlier), and noted her excitement level about the Augusta’s move to help impact the future of the women’s game.
“If I knew I had the chance to play on one of golf’s grandest stages,” Sorenstam said, “that would have sent me to the driving range.”
Famously the winner of the Masters received one of the club’s green jackets. However, Ridley said that would not be the case for the Women's Amateur winner.
“We plan to have a very distinctive award for the winner of this event,” Ridley said, “and we think in time that that will become iconic as well as it relates to this championship.”
The new event’s lone issue may be its timing. The week prior to the Masters is also the same week as the LPGA’s first major, the ANA Inspiration, which already invites a half dozen winners of major women’s amateur events. Ridley acknowledged the overlap, and mentioned he has spoken to LPGA commissioner Mike Whan before Wednesday's announcement.
“Yeah, I have talked to Mike, and Mike understands our motivations for doing this,” Ridley said. “Our motivation to try to help grow the women’s game. I think he also understands and agrees wholeheartedly that from a big picture this is a win for women's golf, and I think he also understands that in time it’s going to be a win for the LPGA.”