Augusta National Golf Club closed to members last weekend, and will remain so until its October re-opening.
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan made a curious comment to Forbes magazine in its most recent issue when asked directly: “Should Augusta National admit female members?”
“As the commissioner of the LPGA, I think Augusta should have a women’s tournament,” Whan said. “I don’t care if they have female members.”
Whan went on to say that he believes the home of the Masters Tournament will eventually open its doors to female members and praised the club for its annual six-figure financial support of Girls Golf, a joint program between the LPGA and USGA that aims to attract young girls to the game. But it’s the idea of a women’s tournament on the iconic course that he reiterated.
“What’s frustrating is that the best players now on our tour can’t play [a tournament] there," Whan said. “I ask every year.”
Forbes didn’t follow up by asking what kind of answer Whan gets to his annual request, leaving that dialogue to our own imaginations. Mine tends to wander toward the possibilities and the “what if?”
Eleven years ago – before most people had ever heard of Martha Burk and Ginni Rometty was still rising through the ranks at IBM – I wrote a column when the Augusta area was getting ready to stage a new LPGA event at Mount Vintage Plantation just two weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
“What women’s golf needs most is not a tournament near Augusta but a tournament at Augusta. What it needs is a Women’s Masters, if you will, at Augusta National Golf Club.”
Augusta, it should not be forgotten, was the home to one of the original women’s major championships – the Titleholders. Held 27 times from 1937 through 1966 at Augusta Country Club, it was far and away the premiere women’s golf event of the season that was as beloved as the Masters to those who competed in it. Ask anyone still around who played in it to tell tales of the annual “Fun Night” skits and the deep fondness for that event is obvious.
In fact, the winners of the Titleholders were presented their own green jackets in a tradition that pre-dated the now emblematic Masters ritual.
Augusta National holds the power to rekindle those traditions in a way that could impact the game of golf for women around the world.
Imagine pioneers and Hall of Famers Louise Suggs, Peggy Kirk Bell, Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth hitting the ceremonial first tee shots at the club across Rae’s Creek from where they won Titleholders.
Imagine prematurely retired icons Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa trying to rekindle the magic in Amen Corner.
Imagine Hall of Famers JoAnne Carner, Nancy Lopez, Betsy King, Amy Alcott, Beth Daniel, Juli Inkster and Hollis Stacy back inside the ropes competing with Yani Tseng, Paula Creamer, Ai Miyazato, Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel, Suzann Pettersen and Lexi Thompson.
Imagine PGA champ Keegan Bradley showing up to caddie for his Hall of Fame aunt Pat Bradley in a ladies version of the Par-3 Contest.
These things would be priceless, and it would inspire female golfers around the world in the same way the Masters inspires young men to dream about playing amidst the roars through the Georgia pines.
It is obviously something the top women have dreamed about as well. A reporter in Mobile, Ala., asked players during an event in April what they thought about the idea of a women’s Masters at Augusta, and the comments were overwhelmingly positive.
“Are you kidding me?” said Creamer, who has played Augusta National twice. “Of course that would be something. That’s when we’d know we had really made it, if something like that happened.”
“Absolutely,” Brittany Lincicome said. “Obviously, I’ve been to (the Masters) before and I’ve walked around a little bit, but I’ve never had the opportunity to play it. Even just to get an invite to go play a practice round or to go and play that golf course would be amazing.’’
“It would be fun if we could play there, of course,” Maria Hjorth said. “It would be nice if we had something similar to that, a place to go back to every year, something that had that standard and that prestige.’’
“It would take a special venue, a special sponsor, just a special set of circumstances just to even come close to that,” Wendy Ward said. “I’ve never played it but I walked the back nine my rookie year and was just in awe. I thought, TV does this course no justice. The beauty, the azaleas, the whole Amen Corner and 15, 16 and 17. I’d love the opportunity to get to play there some time.’’
It’s obviously a lot to ask of one club that already spends enormous resources and energy in annually staging the best presented golf tournament the world has ever seen. To play host to the Masters and then turn around less than two months later and do the same for the women would be a monumental undertaking – especially considering the exacting standard under which Augusta operates.
But if any place in the world could do it, it would be Augusta National. This week is devoted to tee times granted to volunteers, vendors, employees and anyone else who assists in the presentation of the Masters, a gesture of thanks by the club that is treasured by those who receive it.
Would any of those folks mind if their tee times got postponed a week and the edges were a little more trampled by a new flock of patrons introduced to the course? Not at all. The course is no less majestic without the azaleas in bloom.
The waiting list for Masters badges could be cleared and a new one established by worldwide fans eager to get a glimpse of the place and see some of the world’s best challenging it. Television ratings would dwarf anything else in women’s golf (and most men’s events as well). A new line of merchandise sales would fund even more charities and grow-the-game projects. The local economy would get a third Christmas.
Is Whan’s dream too far-fetched? Was Atlanta playing host to the Centennial Olympics ridiculous when Billy Payne first articulated his vision? Payne’s dream then included both men and women playing golf for medals at Augusta National in 1996, and he said not getting that because of the club’s membership policies was one of his “biggest disappointments.”
Now it’s Payne who runs the club. It’s Payne who pledged to “inspire the next generation of golfers” with an amateur event in Asia and a Masters video game. It’s Payne who’s building a legacy of growth and modernization.
While golf’s overall growth has been relatively stagnant, the numbers of women participating has declined. Not surprisingly, interest in the LPGA Tour has waned to the point that only 15 events are now held in the United States and its television presence is minimal. The event at Mount Vintage only survived four years before going the same way of the old Titleholders. An event at Augusta would be a guaranteed success.
With women representing the largest growth potential in golf, a new major event at Augusta National might be just the catalyst to inspire it. It’s the kind of grand gesture that would transform the conversation about Augusta’s place in gender equity.
I’m not suggesting they should, just wondering “what if?”
Perhaps if Whan keeps asking and the LPGA players keep dreaming, a new tradition unlike any other might someday be born.