The small brass plates on the doors to the Augusta National clubhouse dining room, the ones that read “Gentlemen Only,” are long gone.
The Wednesday news conference with the Masters chairman – a tradition in sly evasion unlike any other – isn’t nearly the tense tug-of-war over antediluvian membership policies that it used to be.
Those of us who are experienced enough (translated: getting seriously old) to remember those former fixtures of the Masters have seen a very gradual sea change overtake the most important acreage in American golf. And some of us will be fortunate enough to witness yet one more evolutionary lurch forward Saturday when 30 young women play for the first Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
Where once, not really so long ago, Augusta National stubbornly held off those who called for the inclusion of women members (that changed in 2012), it is now taken up the position of actively promoting the women’s game.
That’s certainly how Paige Mackenzie sees it. A three-time All-American at Washington and formerly the world’s top-ranked women’s amateur, she is working the booth for the NBC broadcast of the event from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday.
“What Augusta National has done has shown incredible leadership,” Mackenzie said. “You don’t see a lot of the most prestigious golf courses in the country hosting women’s events – whether it’s professional or amateur. They’re not standing in line necessarily raising their hands saying: Pick me, pick me.”
Qualifying play began Wednesday, off site, for a field that ranges in age from 14 to 24 years old. The top 30 will play the final round at Augusta National on Saturday, on the weekend before the Masters big finish.
They will play from the member’s tees, and their attack of the course is bound to be significantly different from what you’ll see a week later. “I’m sort of envisioning that the front-nine par 5’s, a few are going to be able to hit (in two),” said Kay Cockerill, a two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champ who will be the on-course analyst for NBC. “But I think it’s going to be tough for the women to hit the par 5’s on the back nine just because it requires a lot of carry.”
They will be coping with a lack of familiarity with a course that demands a wealth of local knowledge. If expected rains interfere with the Friday practice round at Augusta National, that will only deepen the mystery.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of guesswork,” Cockerill said. None of these young women grew up with any kind of model on which to fashion even the dream of playing at Augusta National one day – as did every boy with a set of cut-down clubs. They had no reason to study the Masters on TV and imagine where they might hit to the pin at, say, No. 16. But there’s a new frame of reference for the youngest of female golfers now.
“We’re going to have shots that we’re going to recall as we watch the women play,” Mackenzie said. “(Where it always has been) remember Tiger Woods here, remember Larry Mize here, maybe next year we’ll be able to say remember Maria Fassi here, remember Andrea Lee here.
“That’s so significant to have a women’s reference when you’re talking about one of the most iconic golf courses in the world.”
People will watch Saturday, people who may not pay the slightest attention to women’s golf, if only to check out the azaleas and to sate a curiosity about how women players fare over golfing ground that is as familiar to many fans as their own backyards.
The winner will receive a quite fine trophy, but no article of green clothing. That would be the only logical next step, if there is a next step to be taken – another professional tournament at Augusta National, a Women’s Masters.
“I don’t know if that’s the end-all, because there’s so much history there with the men and the Masters,” Cockerill said. “But, yeah, I’d like to pipe dream and think that would be the ultimate end point. And I’d love to see this amateur event evolve to more rounds being played at Augusta National Golf Club – with eventually the entire tournament played there.”
A Women’s Masters, huh?
Don’t see it.
But, then, there’s much happening at that old place this very week I thought I’d never see.
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