RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — The most coveted piece of mail in golf, postmarked Augusta, Ga., is from the Board of Governors of the Augusta National Golf Club, extending an invitation to play in its tournament, with a superfluous R.S.V.P.
Why superfluous? Well, who is going to turn down an invitation to play at Augusta?
It is no longer a rhetorical question, not since the club sent out invitations for the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur that begins Wednesday.
Four of the best women amateurs in the world—Patty Tavatanakit, Frida Kinhult, Albane Valenzuela and Rachel Heck—sent their regrets to Augusta National, choosing instead to accept invitations to play in the LPGA’s first major of the year, the ANA Inspiration that begins on Thursday. A fifth amateur, Xin (Cindy) Kou of China, won the ANA Junior Inspiration to earn a place in the field.
It was an unfortunate decision for the four and others to have to make, the result of Augusta National scheduling its tournament opposite the ANA. Suddenly, the LPGA major has to cede the spotlight, at least through Saturday, to the inaugural Augusta amateur event.
“They’re two great events,” Valenzuela said. “It’s unfortunate, but I think it will be a great week for women’s golf in general. You have to see it in the positive. It’s great that women’s golf has this issue now. There will be two great winners this week. I think it’s very positive for the game and amateur golf and for women.”
Valenzuela, a Stanford junior from Switzerland, is fifth in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. She has played in the ANA twice, as well as the U.S. Women’s Open twice and the Evian Championship four times.
“I just love this tournament,” she said, explaining her decision to play in the ANA Inspiration. “It’s always been great to me. I was invited the first year in 2016, and it was a turning point in my career. It allowed me to qualify for the Olympic Games. It was a huge moment for me. Already getting two invitations is very special. I couldn’t say no. Only five amateurs are invited, and being one of them is a privilege.
“It was a tough decision, but life is about choices. Augusta will be a phenomenal women’s amateur tournament. But for me as an amateur to compete at the highest level in golf is an honor and a privilege.”
For Tavatanakit, a UCLA sophomore from Thailand and No. 2 in the amateur ranking, professional golf is on her radar and the ANA Inspiration represents another opportunity to gain experience against the best in the world. Last year, she tied for fifth in the U.S. Women’s Open and played in the ANA Inspiration, the U.S. Women’s Open and the Evian Championship in 2017.
“I have a bunch of goals this year that I want to focus on,” she said. “I was thinking, how is this going to affect me long term? It’s a bummer letting go of that [Augusta National], but the ANA is a perfect field for me. It’s preparation for me being more comfortable.”
Kinhult, a Florida State freshman from Sweden, fourth in the amateur ranking, called it “probably the hardest decision I’ve had in golf and in life, too.”
“It’s the best situation for me and for the future. After some talks with my team and golf coaches and family, I decided ANA is the better one for me. If I said no [to Augusta National] this year, I might get an opportunity again next year. That was part of my decision.”
Heck, 17, is a junior at St. Agnes Academy in Memphis, who plans on attending Stanford for four years. “Hopefully there will be more opportunities [to receive the Augusta National invitation],” Heck, the 11th-ranked amateur in the world, said.
“Once we saw the dates were the same, there was no way I would turn down ANA. The past experiences I’ve had playing in majors have been absolutely incredible. Growing up, this is what I dreamed about.”