A Surreal Stage

By Johnathan McGinty
Photos courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club

Ask any of the talented young Women who have been fortunate enough to earn an invitation to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur (ANWA) what it was like to step into that first tee box at one of the most revered golf courses on the planet, and one word repeatedly rises to the top — “surreal.”

Surreal because of the history and legacy of the place, one that has crowned champions for generations.

Surreal because of the expectations hoisted upon the shoulder of these female golfers, the best amateur players in the world.

Surreal because of the promise and potential that comes with this tournament, the first of its kind for women at this hallowed expanse of lush, green fairways and blooming azaleas.

“I had been fortunate enough to play the course before, but an experience like this where I’m competing in a major women’s golf tournament at Augusta?” laughs Anna Morgan, a senior at Furman University. “It was literally one of the most surreal experiences of my life.”

Photo from the Augusta National Women's Amateur courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club.
Anna Morgan of the United States reacts on the No. 1 green during the final round of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

That point is rather significant. Let’s not forget that it’s also surreal, and more than a little nerve-wracking, because, well, all these people are watching and it’s Augusta National Golf Club.

“My caddie said that I should hit a three-wood off the tee, but I told him that I was so nervous to please just give me my driver because that will at least go somewhere,” says Caterina Don, a golfer at the University of Georgia, referring to her opening tee shot in the 2019 ANWA. “If I hit [a] driver, at least the ball will take flight! So the next time I played, we’re at the first tee and the caddie looked at me and said ‘still a driver’ and I said ‘yeah.’”

In the five years since Fred Ridley, chairman of the Augusta National, announced the formation of ANWA, the tournament has grown into what many amateurs say is the premier event on the women’s competitive schedule. 

In the same way that PGA Tour golfers keep tabs on their standing in the Official World Golf Rankings, knowing finishing the season in a certain slot ensures an invitation to the Masters, the opportunity to secure a spot in ANWA has the top women amateurs in the world keeping a close eye on where they sit with regard to the various criteria to qualify for the tournament.

Hannah Darling, a golfer at the University of South Carolina who participated in last year’s tournament and earned a return trip to Augusta in 2023, said it has fueled her drive throughout the year.

“It’s the biggest amateur event for us, and we view it that way,” notes Darling. “There is lots of pride in just being able to play in the tournament, and we know there are lots of amateurs who would kill to be in our position out there. We’re very lucky.”

Photo courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club.
Hannah Darling of Scotland plays her stroke from the No. 12 tee during a practice round for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

Perhaps unthinkable just 30 years ago, the inclusion of a major women’s tournament at Augusta National shows the progress and commitment the club has made toward using its prestige and platform to make a difference, crafting new opportunities for golfers from all backgrounds.

“Especially as a kid, sure you could tell yourself when you’re practicing or messing around that ‘I’m going to make this putt to win the Masters’ but that really wasn’t a thing for girls,” Morgan says. “They never had a tournament for women at Augusta, so obviously when they added ANWA, it went from a dream to a reality knowing you could have a putt to win a tournament at Augusta.”

The first two rounds of the event include the full field of more than 60 golfers and are held at Champions Retreat Golf Club before a cut is issued for the top 30 players to advance to a final round at Augusta National. However, to ensure everyone has a chance to tee it up at golf’s most sacred grounds, a practice round is open the day before the final round for all who want to play.

Not only does this provide the opportunity for the entire field to experience what it’s like to play Augusta National, but it also serves as an extra dose of motivation for players, like Georgia’s Jenny Bae, who missed the cut to get back for another shot at the game’s glory. 

As she prepares for this year’s tournament, she said the chance to take in the practice round at Augusta National was invaluable, arming her with the necessary course knowledge and much-needed perspective.

“I was surprised at how hilly it was,” says Bae, who first competed in 2022’s ANWA. “When I first saw it on TV, I knew it would be a rough walk, but I didn’t expect it to be that hard. I walked up the first four holes, and I felt exhausted.”

Such undulations throughout the course also pose challenges even when golfers hit a solid shot. Balls that find themselves in the center of the fairway don’t necessarily yield a flat lie, putting extra pressure on what typically are routine shots for players in the field.

And that’s to say nothing about Augusta National’s famed greens, which are among the fastest in competition and make the most mundane of reads trickier than usual. Don recalled a moment at the 18th hole where she had to put her full faith in her caddie, even if it meant lining up almost completely away from where the hole was.

“I was not having the best week of golf in my life, and they show everyone on the Golf Channel playing the last hole, so I told my caddie I need to do something nice or this will be so depressing,” she says. “We looked at the putt, and he said to aim a good distance away from the hole. I asked him if he was sure, and he said ‘yeah, I’ll stand there and you aim there.’ When I hit it there, it had good speed and went into the hole.”

Finishing strong is important, particularly when the eyes of the world are on you. What ANWA has been able to do is take those meaningful moments and elevate them to a bigger stage. In doing so, Augusta National has been able to infuse its mystique and magic into the women’s game, helping to create new — and, yes, surreal — opportunities for the next generation of women golfers.

“People don’t realize how good we are until they watch us, and what Augusta has done is take one of the most prestigious golf courses in the world and use it to fuel the growth of women’s golf,” Darling says. “A lot of people know what Masters week is and get hyped for that, and now things like Drive, Chip & Putt and ANWA are part of that tradition. That’s special.”

Appears in the April 2023 issue of Augusta magazine.

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