AUGUSTA: Augusta National Golf Club, an all-male enclave from its 1933 formation until 2012, will crown a historic first woman as a tournament champion on Saturday ahead of next week's 83rd Masters.
The inaugural Augusta National Women's Amateur will conclude with 30 players driving down fabled Magnolia Lane and competing over the legendary 18-hole layout.
Two earlier rounds at nearby Champions Retreat were set to get underway on Wednesday, a global field of 72 fighting for the chance to play at Augusta National at the weekend.
"This championship is fantastic for women's golf," said Swedish 10-time major champion Annika Sorenstam. "Young girls are going to be energized and motivated by seeing this event unfold for years to come."
The iconic course will be tested by top young women on the same week the LPGA Tour plays its first major championship of the year, the ANA Inspiration, at Rancho Mirage, California, with Augusta National aiming to establish its own classic tournament.
"I think it's going to be wonderful for the world of golf," said two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw.
Augusta National saw a 2003 protest over its lack of female members but waited until August 2012 before ex-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and businesswoman Darla Moore broke the gender barrier at the club.
"It's just another step. Things at Augusta National don't happen very rapidly," said 1986 and 1987 US Women's Amateur champion Kay Cockerill, now a television commentator. "They are sort of a slow-moving wheel and the wheel is moving."
But it does inspire dreams that top women's professionals might someday play shots through "Amen Corner" in their own high-profile event.
"You have to start somewhere," said Cockerill. "Maybe down the road we'll have a professional women's event at Augusta. And that would be my hope. I don't know if you have to have a women's Masters But I'd like to pipe dream and think that would be the ultimate end point."
Fred Ridley, a father of three daughters who became Augusta National chairman in 2017, announced the event last April, hopeful it would extend the amateur golf legacy of club co-founder Bobby Jones and advance women's golf.
"We believe the Augusta National Women's Amateur will have a significant and lasting impact on the future of the women's game," Ridley said. "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."
Ridley made it clear how far Augusta National has come regarding women as members in the past decade.
"We are delighted to have several women as members in our club," he said last April. "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."
Since Martha Burk, then-chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, led a 2003 protest over the lack of women members, the Masters also launched the Drive, Chip and Putt contest in 2013, bringing boys and girls to the practice range and 18th green at Augusta to compete. Three women in the Amateur have taken part over the years.
"Augusta National is the biggest stage in golf. There are people within Augusta National that believe women are worthy of this stage and have bought into what this event could be," said TV commentator Paige Mackenzie, a former amateur star who played eight LPGA seasons.
The event gives women a dream of playing Augusta National that only boys have enjoyed until now.
"Young boys picture themselves playing the Masters there and young girls have never had that opportunity," Mackenzie said. "The only visual a lot of young girls are going to have is that they are welcome there and that's really important."
Mackenzie said the image of women playing Augusta National and lifting a trophy all their own, if not donning a green jacket, is important for those dreaming of the chance and those who never had the opportunity.
"The players are making history out there this week but they're also part of history," she said. "That's so important to have, a women's reference, when you are talking about one of the most iconic courses in the world. In some ways, they are representing all women's golfers."
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