ANA Inspiration or Augusta National Women's Amateur? Both are a boost for women's golf
In April of 2018, Rachel Heck and her parents sat down at the kitchen table to talk about her future.
For the 17-year-old Tennessee native and Stanford commit, talking about her future -- particularly when it came to golf -- had become customary. But this time it was different. This talk was hypothetical. It had only been a few days since the women's golf world was presented with a calendar conflict: the newly added Augusta National Women's Amateur would be played the same weekend as the first LPGA major of 2019, the ANA Inspiration.
At this point, Heck knew that she would most likely be getting an invitation to play at Augusta National. She was ranked No. 21 in the world amateur golf rankings at the time, and she was quickly becoming one of the best junior golfers. It would be the first time women were invited to play the historic Georgia course, home to the Masters, in a tournament format.
That ranking also meant there was the possibility she might get an amateur exemption into the ANA Inspiration. This would be her third LPGA major. So Heck sat down with her parents and thought about the hypothetical decision: play in the inaugural women's amateur at Augusta or play in the ANA Inspiration?
"After they announced the Augusta tournament last spring, everyone knew that the dates matched up with the ANA, and they knew that a few people would have to make a tough decision between Augusta or ANA," Heck said. "I didn't know if I would get an invitation or exemption. But my parents asked me hypothetically what we would do. And from the beginning, I said, 'I can't turn down the ANA.'"
Almost nine months later, Heck's hypothetical became a reality. At the beginning of January, the ANWA invitations arrived in the mailboxes of 72 women amateurs. Within the week, the ANA Inspiration exemptions arrived in the email inboxes of a handful of top women amateurs.
She knew it would be difficult to turn down Augusta. After all, Augusta National had opened its gates to women members only in 2012. The club was founded in 1932 and currently has only three women members. For Heck, her fate had already been decided.
"My ultimate goal is to be on the LPGA [Tour]. And I know the Augusta tournament will be around while I'm still an amateur. So I'm hoping I will have multiple more opportunities to play in that and maybe even down the line as a pro," said Heck, who is now ranked No. 11 in the world amateur golf rankings. "But I think when I have a chance to play in a major and experience what my future would be like, I think it would be crazy to turn that down."
A few days before the Augusta National Women's Amateur was announced last spring, LPGA commissioner Michael Whan received calls from Augusta National executive director Will Jones and Masters chairman Fred Ridley about the tournament. There were no discussions about the time frame of the ANWA lining up with the ANA Inspiration, and Whan didn't expect there to be.
"There was never a date discussion between us. It wasn't a brainstorming," Whan said. Ridley declined an interview for this story.
At this point, Whan had to also make a difficult decision: change the date of the ANA Inspiration within a year or change nothing. Whan chose to stick to the original dates.
"When I first got the word, I looked to see if I should change things for 2019. The reality of it is that I get almost 30 hours of live TV during my ANA week. If I wanted to move ANA, I would only move it to a place where I get just as much live TV. Two weeks earlier is the Founders Cup. Two weeks later gets us into Coachella music festival. I didn't want to move and make my major worse. That's not an advantage."
Despite the calendar conflict, Whan suggested to both his team and to his ANA sponsors to play 2019 as planned, not change anything and reassess after the weekend ended. It might be less than ideal to have both tournaments on the same weekend, but Whan said he thinks it's a positive from a business perspective and a sign of significant change in the women's game.
Never in his tenure has there been a weekend of women's golf that has gotten more than 45 hour of live television coverage, the amount anticipated this weekend. Young girls and their families will have the opportunity to watch the best women amateurs walk down the 18th fairway at Augusta National on Saturday. And less than 24 hours later, golf fans will have the opportunity to watch an LPGA player hold up the ANA Inspiration trophy and jump into Poppie's Pond.
"It has the potential to be the greatest weekend celebration of women's golf that we've ever seen outside of the Olympics," Whan said.
Deciding between the two events wouldn't be easy for the several women amateurs who received invitations to both. The decision came down to two questions: Where am I in my career, and what are my long-term goals?
Four of the top 11 amateurs, including Heck, decided to turn down invitations to the Augusta National Women's Amateur and accept the ANA Inspiration exemptions. For No. 2-ranked amateur and UCLA sophomore Patty Tavatanakit, she tried to weigh all her options, even contemplating forgoing both options for a college tournament before making any decisions.
"My mindset this year is to focus on my college career and play for the team because I'm in a position to really step up for the team," Tavatanakit said. "Weighing it out and talking to my parents [in Thailand] and coaches, ANA is a better option for me to play. It sucks that I don't get to go to Augusta, but at the same time, I am focusing on my goals for this year and the path that I'm taking. My dream is to be a professional golfer, and playing in my fifth major will help me get there."
Tavatanakit, 19, adds that making tough decisions and choosing between two great tournaments are a huge part of pursuing a competitive career in golf. And this notion isn't lost on the No. 4 amateur, Florida State freshman Frida Kinhult, and the fifth-ranked amateur, Stanford junior Albane Valenzuela, the other two women who will be playing in the ANA Inspiration.
"I think it's all so positive. That's the key word for me," Valenzuela said. "It's so great that amateurs like me even get these types of choices. If you put things in perspective, if you ask a 21-year-old if she wants to play the ANA where everyone jumps in the pond or you want to play at Augusta, it's like this type of choice and giving young women like me this opportunity to even choose just means the world. I am happy to be a part of a generation that is seeing real change in golf."
When first announced by Ridley, the Augusta National Women's Amateur was established "to inspire greater interest and participation in the women's game by creating a new, exciting and rewarding pathway for these players to fulfill their dreams." And although a handful of women amateurs decided to forgo this inaugural tournament, two of the top women amateurs, top-ranked Jennifer Kupcho and No. 9 Maria Fassi, decided to play. The decision, at first, was hard. But like the others, their reasoning was simple. Both women are graduating from college this spring and know that this is the time to play Augusta, before pursuing professional careers this summer.
At first, Kupcho turned down Augusta. She had a college tournament with Wake Forest that same weekend and didn't want to miss it. Everyone thought she was crazy, including her own brother. But she wanted to devote her time to her team and not burning out before graduation. Then the tournament got cancelled and she called Augusta and said, "I'm in." A few days later, she got the exemption to the ANA Inspiration. She knew she couldn't go back on her word.
When you think about golf and women's golf, I never thought Augusta would really have women play in a tournament there. Not in a negative way, I just felt like that's just not going to happen. I have tears in my eyes because I am proud.Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez
"I think people think it was a lot harder than it actually was," Kupcho said. "In my mind, when I got that exemption, I was just thinking about the fact that I could be playing in that event as a pro and making money. Do I really want to be playing in another major as an amateur and not making money? That was going to come more to my heart. I know I will be playing in the LPGA soon enough. So playing Augusta just makes the most sense."
Fassi echoed Kupcho's sentiment about the timing of it all. For Fassi, playing at Augusta as an amateur is a dream she couldn't pass up.
"It's really hard to put into words how happy and thankful and excited I am to be playing at Augusta and to be a part of history. To be able to go to Augusta for the first time in my life and do it alongside 71 other players that are the best amateurs in the world, it's amazing," Fassi said. "I think we are going to put up a good show for viewers, and hopefully with that we can inspire younger girls to play and to grow the game. I think it's going to be a huge steppingstone for us."
One week before the inaugural tournament, Fassi joined fellow amateur Sierra Brooks and Hall of Fame golfer Nancy Lopez in New York to promote the ANWA. After a full morning of press and television appearances, Fassi got a chance to catch her breath and sit down with Lopez. As Fassi expressed what she hopes to gain from playing at Augusta, Lopez reflected on how far the women's game has come since her heyday.
"When you think about golf and women's golf, I never thought Augusta would really have women play in a tournament there. Not in a negative way, I just felt like that's just not going to happen," Lopez said. "I have tears in my eyes because I am proud. I am proud that we are here. That Augusta National is opening the door to these wonderful amateur players and amateur golf."