AUGUSTA, Ga. — What the folks walking around in green jackets here value, more than anything else, is exclusivity. For years, of course, this took cruel forms. Lately it has been mostly amusing, sometimes frustrating, and often charming. But it is something you always have to keep in mind when you think about Augusta National members. They joined, and they love the place, because it’s not like anywhere else.
And so when you hear Augusta National Golf Club chairman Fred Ridley say his club probably won’t host a women’s professional tournament—an LPGA Masters, essentially—because “we have to be respectful of the Masters tournament,” it is easy to wonder if he realizes that we had this thing called the 20th century, and now we’re well into the next one.
But what Ridley said, in context, was both benign and reasonable. There are two contexts to consider here, actually. One is the context of what he said: Staging the Masters is an enormous logistical effort, and asking the people who do it to add a full-fledged LPGA event the week before would be too much. This is a completely fair point.
The other context is this: Ridley became the club chairman in October 2017. He announced that the club would hold the Augusta National Women’s Amateur six months later, before a single Masters shot was hit under his watch.
Is it the same as a pro event? No. Does it make up for Augusta National’s history of racism and sexism? No. But it was a big step for the most revered venue in American golf, and Ridley is the one who took it. He deserves some benefit of the doubt here.
The question, then, is what happens next?
In an ideal world, which I define as “people doing whatever I want, always,” Augusta National would not just host a women’s amateur event. It would not just host a women’s LPGA event. It would host a women’s Masters … no, let’s do even better than that. It would host something called the Masters for two weeks. The first week, the best female golfers in the world would compete for the title of Masters champion. And then the next week, the best male golfers in the world would compete for the title of Masters champion.
This would only make the (men’s) Masters less exclusive in the sense that more fans would be able to buy tickets to see major championship golf here. But it would not diminish the (men’s) Masters. If Rory McIlroy wins the event to complete the career grand slam, he won’t think less of the accomplishment because Lexi Thompson played here the week before.
It would do wonders for the women’s game, too. I think it would quickly become one of the women’s major championships. And let’s face it: most of you, even the diehard golf fans, cannot name the four women’s major championships, and that’s because there are five. Most of you probably didn’t know that, either.
In the marketplace, women’s professional golf is a niche inside a niche. There are people who can name the last five winners of the ANA Inspiration, but not many. And it’s not for a lack of talent on the tour. The LPGA just struggles to get the attention of the average sports fan.
Nothing in the sport gets people’s attention like meaningful shots being hit at Augusta National. It is the course we know best, the one golfers dream of most, the one that announces, to the world, that something important is happening. An additional Masters would do more for the LPGA than almost any other idea you can dream up.
A similar model works in professional tennis, where the women and men compete at the same time in the same venues for their four major championships. It works in college basketball, where the women hold their tournament and Final Four at the same time as the men, though in different venues. It works in soccer, where women compete for something called a World Cup, just like the men, though in different years.
What has happened, in all those cases, is that women benefited from having a similar format or venue to men … and over time, more people realized the women’s event was compelling on its own, and the comparisons to men stopped mattering. Americans will watch Serena Williams and Alex Morgan this summer because we love to watch riveting athletes. The women’s Final Four is a great event.
The LPGA can be like those, but it needs ways to find a bigger audience. Augusta National can provide an enormous front door for the LPGA Tour (even if, as one assumes, it was run by Augusta National, not the tour itself.)
This is all easy for me to type. It’s harder for Ridley to execute. His course is only open from October to May, and members want to play it, not just watch the pros play it. A (women’s) Masters would be a massive undertaking, and possibly a money-losing one in its early years. But it would be great for golf, and for the reputation of Augusta National. There are a lot of us who would like to see a women’s pro golf event here, for a reason that should be near to the chairman’s heart: we respect the Masters.