The place where Gene Sarazen hit the “shot heard ’round the world” in 1935 issued the press release heard around the world Monday.
Augusta National Golf Club announced that after 80 years of exclusive male membership, the world’s most famous private club has admitted its first two female members. South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were selected to don green jackets when Augusta National opens back up in October.
It took 20 years and a lot of uncomfortable posturing at various intervals in between, but Billy Payne finally got to clear up his “biggest personal disappointment.”
“This is a joyous occasion,” Payne, the club’s chairman, said in the release.
If anyone thinks his words sound disingenuous after the club’s stubborn adherence to its private rights in the face of tenacious public scrutiny the last 11 years, they don’t know Payne very well. Payne dutifully took ownership of the membership issue that has festered since 2002 when predecessor Hootie Johnson publicly issued his famous “point of a bayonet” missive at women’s rights activist Martha Burk’s private request to admit a woman member. But Payne was only biding time to open the doors on his terms.
To understand it, go back to Oct. 21, 1992, when Payne participated in his first press conference at Augusta National. Not yet a member, he stood with club officials as the president and chief executive of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.
Payne had already realized his dream of bringing the Olympics to his home state of Georgia, and his vision didn’t stop there. He intended to bring golf back to the Olympics after 92 years, and he wanted it played at Bobby Jones’ storied course in Augusta.
“My idea was with the historic connections of all the great courses in the Southeast and that Bob Jones was one of our great sporting heroes, that the gift we could make to the Olympic movement should be golf,” Payne said in that 1992 press conference with then-ANGC chairman Jack Stephens announcing their plan to host a men’s and women’s Olympic golf event at the home of the Masters.
Payne had no idea then the backlash that announcement would make. The club’s exclusionary membership became the center of a conflict that scuttled Payne’s plans to bring golf back.
Four years later, at a luncheon a day before the closing ceremonies of the Centennial Games in Atlanta, Payne revealed how much that setback stung him.
“It’s clear the biggest thing missing here is golf at Augusta,” said Payne, whose Atlanta Games came to be known as the “Women’s Olympics.” “I’m sorry about that. It’s my biggest personal disappointment.”
Golf will finally return to the Olympics in Brazil in 2016, but Payne presided over a much bigger deal Monday. He tore down the last barrier into Augusta National with an “enthusiastic welcome” to Moore and Rice.
“This is a significant and positive time in our club’s history,” he said.
It’s a significant and positive step for the game of golf as well. Since taking over as chairman of the club in 2006, Payne has made it his personal mission to use Augusta National’s notoriety and resources to “grow the game” around the world.
But all of those growth efforts, however noble, rang a little hollow when half of the world’s population was excluded from ever having the chance of becoming a member at Augusta. Of course the odds of anyone becoming a member are slimmer than winning the Mega Millions lottery (and that would obviously help one’s chances), but infinitesimal is better than zero every day.
Augusta National inviting women members is a symbol of growth, inclusion and equality, and an important one. And by finally doing so, it makes Augusta National, the Masters and the game of golf better than it was on Sunday.
“It will be a proud moment when we present Condoleezza and Darla their green jackets when the club opens this fall,” Payne said of an event that will seal his legacy.
It will be a prouder moment for golf.