Sports

For a Few Days at Augusta National, the Spotlight Shines on the Women

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Anna Davis had just turned 12 when Augusta National Golf Club, in a surprise, announced it would create a new national women’s amateur championship. On Saturday, now 16 years old, Davis won the tournament.

Annika Sorenstam, who won 10 L.P.G.A. major championships, attended the club’s news conference in 2018, when Augusta National officials said it wanted the 54-hole tournament to benefit women’s golf at all levels.

“This is a dream come true,” Sorenstam said at the time. “It will be an exciting carrot for these young amateurs.”

Sorenstam sat behind the first tee on Saturday as Rachel Kuehn, who was 16 when the tournament was created, teed off in the final round.

“I turned around and Annika Sorenstam was there and I thought, Oh my gosh, I have to hit the fairway,” Kuehn, who would finish seventh, said later. “I didn’t hit the fairway but it was really cool to see her and so many people out supporting women’s golf. It’s what this tournament was meant to do.”

Amari Avery was 14 when Augusta National announced the event, which included the news that the national women’s amateur championship would be broadcast live on NBC on the weekend before the start of the Masters Tournament.

“The very first year they played it I saw how electric it was and I made it a goal for myself to be a part of that atmosphere that very second,” Avery said Saturday after she finished tied for fourth.

Amari Avery after a missed putt on No. 18.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

If Augusta National’s intent was to benefit women’s golf, especially the junior circuit, Kuehn, whose mother, Brenda, was a top amateur who would have loved playing competitive golf at Augusta National, and Avery, whose father is Black and mother is Filipino, each insisted the club’s relatively new amateur championship is achieving its objective.

“It’s just been incredible,” Kuehn said. “It’s a testament to what Augusta National is doing here.”

Avery, whose appearance nine years ago in a Netflix documentary about elite grade school golfers earned her comparisons to Tiger Woods, said the Augusta National tournament was “huge.”

“It’s hard to find words for how much this has impacted amateur women’s golf,” she said. “Seeing all these people lined up and clapping and cheering for us, it’s how it should be and it’s a step in the right direction, for sure.”

Andre Avery, Amari’s father, saw the symbolism.

“For my daughter to turn on the TV years ago and see young women playing on the golf course where the Masters is played, I mean that was a turning point for her,” Avery said. “And today, for African American kids to be watching TV and see someone that looks like them on the same course, that’s a really big deal, too. It’s important for them to see that.”

The first Augusta National Women’s Amateur was held in 2019 and the 2020 event was canceled by the pandemic, which inhibited attendance at the 2021 tournament as well. But on Saturday, the crowds at Augusta National, which began admitting women members in 2012, were hearty, with the galleries around the closing holes 10 deep with fans. (Augusta National does not release attendance figures.)

“I’ve never played in front of such big crowds,” Davis said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Girls watching the trophy presentation at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Brenda Kuehn could not help but notice how many women were in attendance — and how many had brought their grade school and preteen daughters, who surged around the golfers as they finished their rounds, clamoring for autographs.

“I gave my golf ball to a little girl as I came off the 18th green today and I’m not sure if she understood what was going on, but the look and smile on her face was a beautiful thing,” Ingrid Lindblad of Sweden, who finished tied for second, said.

Lindblad, a junior on the golf team at Louisiana State, said that one of her professors even knew she would be competing at the storied golf club.

“Not many people normally talk to me about one of our college tournaments,” Lindblad said. “Only family and close friends go to those. But that’s how this tournament is different. There’s no question it’s raised the profile of women’s golf. And that will continue to have positive effects.”

Kuehn’s coach at Wake Forest University, Kim Lewellen, said she has seen a rise in participation at junior girls’ camps and in the number of women recruits who have contacted her since the tournament’s inception. She credits the appeal of seeing women at a renowned golf course and the fact that it is contested the weekend before the Masters is played.

Anna Davis, winner of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, on No. 18 after missing a birdie putt.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

There are other prominent American women’s amateur championships, like the U.S. Women’s Amateur, first played in 1895, but Augusta National seems to have captured a distinctive foothold.

“It’s the platform,” said Avery’s golf coach at Southern California, Justin Silverstein. “Arguably, everyone in golf has heard of Augusta National and even most casual sports fans have heard of the Masters. It’s the most recognizable golf course in the world.

“Young women golfers turn on NBC, and that’s another huge platform, and they see people that look like them — or people not that far removed from them — and they think: Maybe I can do that too.”

Sometimes, that is all it takes.

Davis, who shares her March 17 birthday with Bobby Jones, one of the founders of Augusta National who died in 1971, said on Saturday that she had not heard of the event until last year — when she watched it on television.

“It made me very excited to try and compete in this event,” she said. “Then I was excited when I learned I was going to play here.”

Now she is the tournament champion.

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