Augusta (United States) (AFP) - Augusta National, the iconic venue that hosts the Masters but didn't allow women members until 2012, is launching a women's amateur tournament, chairman Fred Ridley said Wednesday.
The Augusta National Women's Amateur Championship will feature 72 players, Ridley said. The inaugural edition in 2019 will be a 54-hole stroke-play event, with the first two rounds staged at Champions Retreat Golf Club in Augusta.
After a cut to the low 30 scores, the final competitive round will take place at Augusta National on April 6 -- the Saturday before the Masters begins.
"This championship will become an exciting addition to the Masters week, and it furthers our effort to promote the sport and inspire young women to take up the game," Ridley, who succeeded Billy Payne as chairman in October, said at the traditional chairman's news conference on the eve of the Masters.
"And now, just imagine the 40 girls who come here each year for the Drive, Chip & Putt national finals will be able to dream about returning here one day to compete on a much grander stage for another impressive title, champion of the Augusta National Women's Amateur."
Ridley said the decision to merge the new event with Masters week was made with an eye toward the already short season for the club's members and guests.
However, the timing of the tournament could present some of the world's best women amateurs with a dilemma should they have to choose between taking part or playing in the ANA Inspiration, the first major championship of the LPGA season which is traditionally played the week before the Masters at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, California.
"We have no intentions of competing or taking away from the ANA Inspiration," Ridley said. "We think that to have one week where the future greats of the game and the current greats of the women's game are all competing on a big stage is -- it's just very exciting.
"So that was our thinking in doing this, and we have no intention of competing with that event or any other event."
Ridley added he had been in touch with LPGA commissioner Mike Wahn.
"Mike understands our motivations for doing this," he said. "Our motivation to try to help grow the women's game.
"I think he also understands and agrees wholeheartedly that from a big picture this is a win for women's golf, and I think he also understands that in time it's going to be a win for the LPGA."
The LPGA issued a statement calling the tournament "exciting news."
"With the ANA Inspiration, golf's first major championship of the season, and this amateur event, we have a real opportunity currently to make the weekend prior to the Masters a celebration of women's golf unlike anything we have experienced previously," the tour's statement said.
"While this announcement may create some initial challenges for our first major, navigating multiple opportunities for women's golf is a good problem to have."
- Watershed event -
Certainly the new event is a watershed for a club that not so long ago was under intense fire for it's no-women membership policy.
Activist Martha Burk led protests at the 2002 Masters, when then-Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson vowed the club would not admit women "at the point of a bayonet."
In 2012, the club ended 80 years of men-only membership when they admitted former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore.
Ridley said the number of women members continues to increase.
"They are great contributors," he said. "They have added to our culture."