It’s been niggling me for a while, this announcement of the grandly titled Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship, hailed in some quarters as a massive breakthrough for women’s golf. Perhaps it is. Fred Ridley, Augusta National’s rookie chairman, who has three daughters, is by all accounts an intelligent man with his heart in the right place, who undoubtedly means well. But did he really think through all the implications? He’s buggered up the ANA Inspiration for a start – or at best thrown the first women’s major of the season into a bit of a tizzy.
The leading women amateurs who used to think that an invitation to Mission Hills Golf and Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, the week before the Masters was as good as it got must now think again. Some of the leading women professionals are saying that they might apply to regain their amateur status just so they can have a chance of playing at Augusta National. They’re only joking but their thunder has been well and truly stolen without so much as a by-your-leave.
I don’t know how widely Ridley consulted before making his announcement but from what I’ve read Mike Whan, commissioner of the LPGA, wasn’t involved in long and detailed discussions; I’m not sure who was. “We are always looking for new ways to benefit and impact the game,” Ridley said in his inaugural chairman’s address on the Wednesday of Masters week. “We start with the premise and reality that we are very blessed to have the resources to do that…..I thought this was the right time to do this, right time for the women’s game. I wanted to do this and I wanted to do it here.”
‘This’ is a 54-hole event for 72 of the top women amateurs in the world. The first 36 holes will be played at Champions Retreat Golf Club in Augusta, a course with which I am unfamiliar, with the leading 30 players moving on to Augusta National for the final round on the Saturday before the Masters, the day before the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals. That’s a lovely event for juniors, who have the time of their lives mixing with the game’s elite and competing at a venue that has now gained iconic status.
The golfing world is in awe of Augusta, regarding it as some sort of cross between Mecca, the Vatican and the Kremlin and the danger is that the members of Augusta National, a disparate but privileged bunch, start to believe their own publicity, forgetting their humble origins and overlooking the fact that their exclusive, invitational field makes it arguably the easiest of the four majors to win – unless you’re Rory McIlroy.
Now the women are salivating at the thought that 30 of the best of them will get to play one round on the hallowed turf. That’s 18 holes, as a tag-on, not just before the Masters itself but before the Drive, Chip and Putt. Thank you Fred, that really helps us know our place.
Eight women – well, some of them are still girls – who will fancy their chances of making that trip to Augusta, will be heading to Quaker Ridge, Scarsdale, New York, at the beginning of June to represent Great Britain and Ireland in the Curtis Cup. They and their captain Elaine Farquharson-Black will be trying to retain the trophy won at a soggy Dun Laoghaire two years ago. Winning in America is not easy. By my reckoning, we’ve (I’m going to be shamelessly partisan here) only done it once – at Prairie Dunes in 1986 when we mangled the Americans 13-5 in the middle of Kansas in 100-degree heat (Fahrenheit in those days). It was wonderful and I thank Diane Bailey and her team for one of the best golfing experiences of my life at a fantastic golf course that is more than worth the considerable detour.
So good luck to Elaine and her team: India Clyburn (Woodhall Spa), Annabell Fuller (Roehampton), Paula Grant (Lisburn), Alice Hewson (Berkhamsted), Lily May Humphreys (Stoke-by-Nayland), Sophie Lamb (Clitheroe), Shannon McWilliam (Aboyne) and Olivia Mehaffey (Royal County Down Ladies). We’ll be cheering you on. We’d rather not have a BBU (brave but unavailing) but would settle for a draw – there’ve only been two of those in America, at Brae Burn in 1958 and the Honors Course in 1994.
And good luck and congratulation to Suzann Pettersen, the combative Norwegian who has been one of Europe’s Solheim Cup stalwarts for many years. She’s expecting her first child and has withdrawn from next week’s GolfSixes shindig at Centurion Club on medical advice. “This is a very happy time for me and my family,” Pettersen said, “but my pregnancy hasn’t been the most straightforward. I have taken the advice of my doctor and will sadly not be able to compete in GolfSixes this year, which is a real shame as I know it would have been a lot of fun.”
Carlota Ciganda, of Spain, has been drafted in to partner Mel Reid and they’re in a group that includes the formidable Thai pairing of Thongchai Jaidee and Kiradech Aphibarnrat. England’s Georgia Hall and Charley Hull are also playing and they’ll be taking on their compatriots Eddie Pepperell and Matt Wallace in a needle match. Should be worth watching, not least because there’s no hanging about in a 6-hole sprint.