Annika Sorenstam hit ceremonial shots off the first tee to launch the historic final round of the inaugural Augusta National Women's Amateur. Photo: @anwagolf via Twitter

AUGUSTA – Striking blows for gender equality with every swing, women players competed for a trophy for the first time on Saturday at former men-only enclave Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters.

At a facility that opened in 1933 but didn’t admit its first women members until 2012, LPGA legends Pak Se-ri, Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa and Nancy Lopez hit ceremonial first tee shots to launch the historic final round of the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

“It’s just exciting to be a part of history,” Lopez said. “A day of history for us, for the amateurs that are here and for Augusta National.”

A field of 72 played the first 36 holes at nearby Champions Retreat before the top 30 advanced to the last 18 holes at the famed Masters layout.

“It’s a dream come true. I’m so happy for them,” Sorenstam said. “This has huge potential to not just inspire young girls but golfers, other women in sports and women in business.”

American Anna Redding, a University of Virginia senior, was the first competitor to tee off, her groundbreaking shot landing to the left side of the fairway.

World women’s amateur number one Jennifer Kupcho, an American, teed off on 5-under par with a one-stroke lead over Mexico’s Maria Fassi, a University of Arkansas senior, in the last pairing.

“They know how special it is,” Ochoa said. “Hitting that first tee shot is probably going to be the highlight of their career.”

Augusta’s trademark lightning-quick and undulating greens took a toll on rivals as Kupcho and Fassi opened a one-on-one battle beneath the Georgia pines.

Fassi answered an opening bogey with birdies on the par-5 second and par-4 third to share the lead. Kupcho, the reigning US college champion from Wake Forest, birdied the par-3 sixth but Fassi birdied the par-4 seventh and par-5 eighth to seize the lead by one at 7-under making the turn.

“So cool seeing these women live out their dreams right now,” tweeted Rory McIlroy, who hopes to complete a Career Grand Slam by winning his first Masters title next weekend.

Kupcho opened the back nine with a bogey to give Fassi a two-shot lead and the Mexican kept it at the tricky par-3 12th – the heart of the fabled three-hole stretch called “Amen Corner” – by getting up and down for par from a front bunker.

Kupcho answered with an eight-foot eagle putt at the par-5 13th hole while Fassi parred to leave them deadlocked exiting Amen Corner while fans around the world enjoyed an unprecedented sight – women battling for a title over some of golf’s most epic holes.

Augusta National’s all-male status led to a 2003 protest across the street from the club but it was not until August 2012 when businesswoman Darla Moore and former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were named the club’s first women members.

Augusta’s first nod to female players was the 2014 debut of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, where young girls and boys won titles with a decisive putt on Augusta National’s famed 18th green – three Women’s Amateur players having taken part.

Pak struck the first ceremonial tee shot followed in order by Ochoa, Lopez and Sorenstam, handling the duties in a similar fashion to how Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and the late Arnold Palmer have done at the Masters.

“For them to kind of make us like Arnold, Jack and Gary, it’s a real big honour to be here and hit that first shot,” Lopez said.

The women, however, avoided the push to see who could hit longest that Nicklaus and Player typically embrace.

“Once I got up there, I felt like it was more about a team event, like we’re doing this together, just kind of cheer each other on,” Sorenstam said. “It’s a global sport and here we all are able to do this together.”

Nicklaus tweeted his appreciation for women playing at Augusta, writing, “Always considered Augusta National GC & @TheMasters the best at balancing respect for golf’s history & tradition with innovative ways to grow our game. Inaugural @anwagolf is the latest great example.”

AFP