By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Augusta National Golf Club opened its competitive doors to women on Wednesday, announcing it would host an amateur championship in another sign attitudes are changing at one of the world's most exclusive clubs.
Making his first State of the Masters address, Augusta chairman Fred Ridley said the club, that had barred women from membership until six years ago, would welcome the world's top female amateurs to compete.
The Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship will take place the week before next year's U.S. Masters.
"(Club founders) Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts left behind a legacy of always trying to contribute meaningfully to the game of golf," Ridley, the father of three girls, said.
"The Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship embodies that principle, and we believe this event will have a significant and lasting impact on the future of the women’s game.
"Our hope and expectation is that this event will further energize those who already love the sport and inspire others through the dream of competing at Augusta National."
For decades the thought of being anything other than an employee or an invited guest at Augusta National was just a dream for women.
In the early 2000s with civil rights groups pushing the public to boycott Masters sponsors over Augusta's men only membership policy, former chairman William “Hootie” Johnson declared the club would not be forced to open its doors to women “at the point of a bayonet”.
Johnson stood firm against mounting pressure and it was not until he stepped down that his successor Billy Payne finally ushered in the first women members in 2012, ending an issue that had reached the White House.
"I just felt that there was an opportunity and a platform to make a statement as to how we feel about this part of the game," Ridley said on Wednesday. "I just felt it was time to do that.
"I happen to have three daughters, and they all love golf... and I know they're going to be really excited about this.
"We also feel that is the way that we can make the greatest impact in growing the game, and in this particular instance the women's game.
"I think over time that this will also be of great benefit to the women's professional game as well."
The 54-hole, stroke play tournament will feature an international field of 72 players. Invitees will be determined by awarding spots to winners of other recognized championships and using the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking.
The first two rounds will take place 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 Saturday, April 6, when an amateur champion will be crowned for the first time ever at the home of the Masters.
A former-amateur champion who competed three times at the Masters, Ridley said he expected the tournament to be televised and distributed on digital platforms around the world.
Ridley would not, however, say if the Augusta amateur champion would be awarded the trademark Green Jacket that goes to the winner of the Masters.
He said the winner would receive a trophy that would over time become no less iconic.
"The Green Jacket certainly is an iconic part of the Masters Tournament and is awarded to the champion," said Ridley.
"We plan to have a very distinctive award in the trophy for the winner of this event, and we think in time that will become iconic as well as it relates to this championship, and we think that it will be very well received and the winner is going to be very excited to receive it."
(Editing by Toby Davis)