Reality Check: Why It Would Be Tough For Augusta To Host Women's Masters
Nearly 80 years ago, there was a professional tournament at Augusta National Golf Club that didn't feature the best male golfers in the world.
About a month before Christmas in 1937 and 1938, the first two editions of the PGA Seniors' Championship were held at Augusta National. The inaugural was 54 holes; the second was shortened to 36 because of rain. Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod won the tournaments and became the first names on the Alfred S. Bourne Trophy, at 42 inches tall and weighing 36 pounds likely the largest spoil in golf. Bourne, a club member, paid for the hefty piece of Tiffany silver.
According to author David Owen's The Making of the Masters, Augusta National co-founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts let the PGA of America use the venue for two main reasons: 1) prestige for their fledgling club and event, and 2) for a greater good. "They had founded the Masters partly out of financial necessity, but they had also had a more idealistic goal of helping to build the game," Owen writes. "Hosting the senior event, they believed, was both an opportunity and an obligation."
Some believe Augusta National should now be the site of a tournament for another segment of golfers by including women. LPGA player Paula Creamer spoke up after the Masters, invoking a "grow the game" argument. "I'd like to know truthfully why we wouldn't be able to have a tournament there," she said. "Definitely women's golf deserves something like that."
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan was more diplomatic while admitting he has urged Augusta National officials multiple times about the prospect of a women's event there. "It's a fun dream," Whan told espnW.com's Michael Collins. "Could it become a reality some day? Some day. But by no means do we feel anybody owes us anything. At the same time, if it ever came to fruition, it'd be great."
The club's chairman, Billy Payne, had been asked about the possibility of a women's event in his pre-Masters news conference this month. Citing the club's short member season and the large amount of time and effort necessary to hold the Masters, Payne said, "I don't think that we would ever host another tournament."
Augusta National said Payne did not have further comment.
In contrast to the climate of the 1930s, when its spring invitational was still trying to gain traction, Augusta National has all the prestige any club could ever imagine. As for the "opportunity and obligation" to contribute to the greater good of golf, Augusta National will point to other recent initiatives: hosting the Drive, Chip and Putt competition for youth; conducting amateur championships in Asia and Latin America in which the winners receive a Masters invitation; donating sizable funds to golf initiatives from their tournament proceeds.
"I've said many times, I'm impressed with what Augusta National not only has done but is doing to grow the game," Whan told Collins. "They write a significant six-figure check every year to our LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program. I wish every tournament and every course venue of their stature could invest that kind of money in growing the game."
Given what Payne has said, a women's tournament at Augusta National might be golf's ultimate hypothetical. It could forever be the "fun dream" referenced by Whan. But what about the specifics of such a fantasy?
"They could wave a wand and probably put on a stunning women's competition," said David Fay, former executive director of the United States Golf Association whose idea it was to hold the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open in consecutive weeks at Pinehurst No. 2 course last year. "We know what Augusta National can do. They've demonstrated it. I wouldn't want to entrust them to run the government, but if they did, the trains would run on time. They have total control."
What time of year could a women's event take place? Fay believes in the spring, perhaps two weeks after the Masters in order to allow for potential weather delay. "I'd give it a week's rest and come back," he said.
Augusta National is closed from June through September but would have held men's and women's competitions there in the summer if golf in the 1996 Summer Olympics -- for which Payne was president and chief executive officer -- had panned out. The course would be in quality playing condition in the fall, though without its signature beauty.
"They prepare that course for one tournament," said Casey Alexander, who analyzes the golf industry for Gilford Securities. "I don't think they have an appetite to do it twice. The azaleas are only going to bloom once a year. I don't think they ever want to entertain the idea of putting that course on TV looking anything other than what it looks like for the Masters."
As for the playability of Augusta National for highly skilled female golfers, it would probably work out as it has when women professionals have played the U.S. Women's Open at Oakmont Country Club or the Women's British Open on the Old Course at St. Andrews -- not an issue.
When Creamer won the 2010 U.S. Women's Open at Oakmont with a 3-under total, it was playing 6,613 yard --, 9 percent shorter than the 7,230-yard course that Angel Cabrera won the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont at 5-over par. The Old Course was also set up 9 percent shorter for the women in 2013 than for the men in 2010.
If Augusta said we're going to do this once, there would be clamoring for an annual event. ... There would be this feeling, 'I had it, and my carriage turned back into a pumpkin, it's gone away.'David Fay
In contrast to many high-level courses, Augusta National has only two sets of tees: Member (6,365 yards) and Masters (7,435 yards). The shorter distance is 14 percent less than the tournament markers, a little shy of the ideal advocated by former USGA senior director of handicapping Dean Knuth for an elite women's yardage being 88 percent of that for men for the same challenge. (Pinehurst No. 2 hit that equation on the button in 2014.) A couple of new tees could be built, but for women as with men, Augusta National likely would favor long hitters.
A larger conundrum could exist outside the ropes. Whan refers to Augusta National as "the best golf platform in the world." If the club hosted a women's event, how would it play financially and what would its effect be on other events on the LPGA schedule?
David M. Carter, principal at The Sports Business Group and executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute, said in an email "it would need continuity and prestige in order for funding partners to really step up." He said that "a successful tournament in Augusta would certainly be poised to siphon interest and revenue from other notable [women's] tournaments."
A one-time event would create its own issues, as Fay pointed out. "Assume it would be pulled off beautifully, and it would be," Fay said. "If Augusta said we're going to do this once, there would be clamoring for an annual event," Fay said. "It would generate a huge amount of excitement. There would be this feeling, 'I had it, and my carriage turned back into a pumpkin, it's gone away.' "
There was, of course, a prestigious women's golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia, for a long time. The first Titleholders was held in 1937 at Augusta Country Club, the same year Jock Hutchison won the inaugural PGA Seniors' at Augusta National. The Titleholders was held at Augusta Country Club 27 times between 1937 and 1966. Its champions -- which included Patty Berg, Babe Zaharias, Louise Suggs, Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth -- got jackets, too, in a bit lighter shade of green than the emerald hue a Masters champion slips into each April.
During Payne's chairmanship the club in 2012 admitted its first women members, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore. The move came a decade after activist Martha Burk urged then-chairman Hootie Johnson to include women. Some saw the addition of female members as symbolic progress. If a women's tournament ever took place at Augusta National, it would be a historic addition to the competitive calendar.
"You introduce Augusta National and women's golf -- I couldn't come up with anything to approach it," Fay said. "Based on the public comments of Billy Payne, I would say the chances of it happening are slim. But Billy is a marketing genius. The fact that he was able to even get the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, on the 100th anniversary of the first modern Olympics in Athens, told you how powerful a force he was. As time goes on, if he is looking for legacy things, if he were to establish a women's Masters, run by the Augusta National, it'd be some enduring legacy."