Almost every time Alexa Pano shows up at a golf course or tournament, she gets asked about the Augusta National Women's Amateur.
"Every tournament I've played in, people have asked me, 'Are you excited to go to Augusta?'" the 14-year-old said. "Literally at my practice (on a recent day), and I think maybe five people came up to me and asked me if I'm excited and whatnot. In like every part of golf, it's the most buzz I've heard about any sort of tournament since I've been playing, actually."
After nearly a year of hype, the 54-hole tournament begins this week.
The first two rounds will be played Wednesday and Thursday at Champions Retreat Golf Club in Evans. The 72-player field will be cut to 30 players after 36 holes.
The caveat is that all players, even those who miss the cut, will get a chance to play a practice round at Augusta National on Friday. The final round, which will be televised by NBC, is scheduled for Saturday at the home of the Masters Tournament.
Fred Ridley took over as chairman of Augusta National and the Masters in October 2017, and a few months later he delivered the news at his first "State of the Masters" news conference. With LPGA Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam and Augusta National member Condoleeza Rice among those in attendance, Ridley said "it was the right time for the women's game" to introduce a new event.
With a long history of the club and tournament supporting amateur golf and with a stated mission to grow the game, Ridley took the bold step.
"I wanted to do this, and I wanted to do it here," he said last April. "I thought for us to have the greatest impact on women's golf that we needed to be committed to do it here at Augusta National."
Sorenstam will be part of a quartet of LPGA players who will be on hand for the weekend in Augusta as they watch the game's next level of stars compete.
"This is huge. You know the importance of Augusta National and golf, and what they have done with the Masters and the Drive, Chip and Putt, and now the women's amateur," she said. "It really is special. It's a milestone in the game."
Pano and Hanna Alberto are two players in this week's field who have experienced competition at Augusta National. They have competed in the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals, which is held on the Sunday before Masters Week. Lucy Li, one of the winners in the event's first visit to Augusta National in 2014, was scheduled to compete this week but dropped out because of injury.
Pano was the first two-time winner in the event for boys and girls ages 7 to 15. She hasn't played a full round on the course, but she said having experience on the grounds is a plus.
"I'm really excited to get to play it," said Pano, who will be the youngest competitor in the field. "You see the course on TV and you see it in person, but I don't think anyone knows the full experience until you get to play it and feel the greens and see the shots and how they react. That's going to be really awesome."
Big-time women's tournaments are nothing new for the Augusta area. From 1937 to 1966, the Titleholders Championship was held at Augusta Country Club and featured a who's who list of winners that included Patty Berg, Babe Zaharias, Patty Berg, Louise Suggs, Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth.
In 2001, the LPGA brought professional women's golf back to the area with the Asahi Ryokuken International Championship. It was played four years at Mount Vintage Plantation Golf Club.
Augusta National and Masters co-founder Bobby Jones often competed alongside women in exhibition matches and relied on the advice of Marion Hollins when he was getting ready to build his dream course. His grandson said Jones would no doubt "be smiling" about the Augusta National Women's Amateur.
"People forget how supportive my grandfather was of women's golf," Bobby Jones IV said. "At the introductory meeting with Louise Suggs and other founders of the LPGA, Bub arranged for it to take place at Augusta National. He was always a supporter."
Augusta National's decision to invite women to become members came a decade after the club was thrust into the spotlight when the National Council of Women's Organizations demanded that the private club allow women.
A battle between the two entities played out in the media and the court of public opinion over the next several months, with Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson standing his ground, and nothing changed.
In August 2012, Rice and Darla Moore were announced as the first female members in the club's 80-year history.
Augusta National tried to bring women's competition to its famous course and bring golf back to the Olympics when Atlanta was awarded the bid for the 1996 Summer Games. Club Chairman Jack Stephens agreed to the proposal, but the Atlanta City Council balked and the idea was scrapped.
Now, more than two decades later, women will finally get to compete at Augusta National.
"For me, it's a huge deal. I've wanted to play at Augusta since I was starting to play golf," Pano said. "Every woman has wanted this for a really long time, and especially to give amateurs the opportunity first is a really big honor. To be part of it is going to be amazing."
This article is written by John Boyette from The Augusta Chronicle, Ga. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
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