Jeff Schultz

This AJC sports blogger takes things seriously when he has to, but he really would rather not

Augusta National just made a dream Masters week a little better


The world’s NeverNeverland for one-percenters, and mostly old white men, welcomed its new leader Wednesday, and Fred Ridley, the new green-jacketed poohbah, could not have timed things any better.

The Masters’ field is flush with ascending great players. Tiger Woods has rehabilitated his game, his image and possibly even his actual being. The skies over Augusta National are no longer raining Martha Burks, media fireballs and point-of-bayonet references, as was the case when Billy Payne assumed his role as chairman from the cantankerous dinosaur, Hootie Johnson, in 2006.

Now this: In his first state-of-our-little-tunamint address to the media, Ridley added early punctuation to Masters week with an announcement that the club will establish the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship. This event, which will held the week preceding next year’s Masters, will be played at the same club that in the not-too-distant past wouldn’t consider presenting women on campus with any honor or award, other than maybe a green apron.

Long live suffrage in the secret society off Washington Road.

The boys club has at least four women members. It says it now wants to help grow the women’s game with a three-day tournament for a field of 72 amateur players. Hosting a professional tournament would have made a louder statement and been more impactful in the long run. But let’s not quibble. Augusta National is creeping closer to the 20th century, so that’s significant.

“Golf’s a great game,” Ridley said, when asked about sweeping changes at Augusta since Johnson was at the center of a media firestorm in 2003. “Hopefully, it’s color blind. It’s blind to gender.”

He also said the club now has “several” female members (slight overstatement) and added, “There will be more women members,” in the future (comforting).

Ridley inherited peace. He’s not going to do anything to disrupt that.

As a former U.S. Amateur champion and the first chairman to have actually played the game at a competitive level – Bobby Jones was a co-founder, not chairman – he has an insight none of his predecessors do.

The actions of a private golf club don’t directly impact most of us free of CEO titles, and even most of those in the white-collar world. But any positive evolution in the world right now is welcome. The club’s actions also reflect on the Masters, one of the world’s highest profile sports events.

Ridley couldn’t have possibly screwed up the tournament this week, short of adding an alternate blue-and-orange members jacket -- he’s a Gator -- or a loop-de-loop into the clown’s mouth on the 13th green.

The field is always strong, but it’s rare to have so many story lines and so many of the world’s top players playing so well coming in.

“I don’t think there’s one clear-cut favorite,” said Woods, who at one time was the betting favorite, likely overly inflated by his Q-rating, but now ranks fifth at 12-1. “There are guys from their early 20s to Phil (Mickelson) at 47 that have all played well.”

Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion who’s again playing well after missing two of the last four cuts in Augusta, is this week’s pick by Hank Haney, Woods’ former swing coach.

Woods may not win, but his consecutive strong finishes suggest he will be on the leaderboard. Two-time winner Bubba Watson missed the cut last year but is back playing at a competitive level and won at Riviera in February.

McIlroy is the current tournament favorite, which is somewhat amusing considering this course has been his personal chamber of horrors He has won four majors but zero Masters. The ugliest reference point: his triple-bogey on No. 10 in 2011 and fourth-round score of 80, the worst round by any pro golfer who led after three rounds.

Then there’s Dustin Johnson. He’s still on his feet as of this typing. But his tee time isn’t until 2 p.m. Thursday so assume nothing

Did he rent a ranch house this week? Is he at least keeping his spikes on in the house instead of walking around in socks? Johnson was the favorite going into last year’s Masters, but on the eve of the tournament he slipped on some stairs in his rental house and fell, injuring his back and forcing him to withdraw.

“I get asked (about) it every day out here on the range or walking down the fairway,” said Johnson. “So, yeah, I definitely was thinking about it. It was kind of just a freak thing and it happened.”

Johnson’s tumble threw the tournament and fantasy drafts into a tizzy. It figured something strange would happen. Something strange did: Sergio Garcia won his first major, on a course where he frequently floundered and sometimes ripped. (“I don’t like it, to tell you the truth. I don’t think it’s fair” -- Garcia, circa 2009.)

Augusta National remains a special patch of green and its tournament never fails to provide Sunday drama. The drama so far this week is all good. Things certainly have changed.

Listen to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast. Check out the podcast show page at AJC.com/sports-we-never-played-the-game. Subscribe on iTunes or, Google play, StitcherTuneIn, or listen from the AJC sports podcasts page or the WSB Radio on-demand page.


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About the Author

Jeff Schultz is a general sports columnist and blogger who isn't afraid to share his opinion, which may not necessarily jibe with yours.