AUGUSTA, Ga. — Less than six years since it first admitted a female member and 15 years since its chairman said it would not be "bullied, threatened or intimidated" into doing so, Augusta National Golf Club announced Wednesday its plans to hold an all-women's tournament on its famed course.
The first Augusta National Women's Amateur Championship will be held next year, a 54-hole event involving 72 of the best amateur players in the world. While the first two rounds will take place at the nearby Champions Retreat Golf Club, the final 18 holes - when the field will be cut to 30 - will be staged on the same course that hosts the Masters on the Saturday before that tournament begins.
"We believe this event will have a significant and lasting impact on the future of the women's game," said Fred Ridley, the new chairman of Augusta National. "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."
The announcement of the new event represents a milestone for the exclusive, private club as it pertains to gender rights. Ridley said the announcement was "directed at a segment of our sport that is so important, one that is vital to the future of golf." He added: "Golf's a great game. Hopefully it's color blind, it's blind as to gender."
In 2002, Martha Burk, the chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, wrote a letter to William "Hootie" Johnson, then the chair of Augusta National, arguing the club should admit women as members. Johnson issued a vitriolic letter admonishing Burk for butting into the business of a private club, and a conflict was on.
Burk led protests prior to the 2003 Masters, and the club faced scrutiny it hadn't before. Still, it took a change in the chairmanship, not to mention another decade, for the club to change its policy regarding female membership. In August 2012, Billy Payne, Johnson's successor, announced that former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore would be admitted to the club as the first female members. The club is famous for not commenting on membership, but Ridley indicated that Rice and Moore aren't the only female members and that such a segment will be growing.
"We are delighted to have several women as members in our club," Ridley said. "They are great contributors. They have added to our culture. And while I won't go into specifics, I will assure you that there will be more women members at Augusta National."
Ridley, the longtime chair of Augusta's competition committee that oversees the Masters, is in his first year as the club's chair, and it's clear he intends to make diversity a club objective. He brought the idea up with staff in October, and the club put together the plan in five months.
"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. . . . And I know they're going to be really excited about this."
The immediate reaction was positive.
"Fantastic!" six-time Masters champ Jack Nicklaus tweeted. "This is a great thing for the game of golf!"
Ridley said he expects the women's event will be televised, though no deals have been made yet. "I expect I'll have some messages on my desk when I get back," he joked. ESPN and CBS currently carry the Masters. Fans will be able to purchase tickets to the final round at Augusta.