NEW YORK — Don’t overlook the two biggest winners in Augusta National’s decision to invite women to join the club.
Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore are now members of one of the most exclusive golf clubs in the world. They will be presented green jackets when the golf course opens for a new season in October. They can attend the members-only parties, including the Jamboree each spring. Members are discouraged from playing too much at the home of the Masters, though they can bring guests and stay in the white cabins along the 10th fairway.
If their schedules allow, they will be assigned a committee during the Masters. They will be at the members-only dinner in an upstairs chalet at the end of the tournament to toast the newest Masters champion.
But they weren’t the only winners.
The only thing Augusta National ever says about membership issues is that it doesn’t discuss them. Nothing spoke to the historic nature of Monday’s decision more than club chairman Billy Payne issuing a press release to confirm Rice and Moore as the newest members.
He called it a “joyous occasion,” which could be interpreted many ways.
Perhaps the joy is knowing that he won’t be fielding any more questions why Augusta National hasn’t had a female member in its 80-year history. Or that the focus at the Masters can return to white dogwoods, pink azaleas and lightning fast greens.
It does seem strange that keeping up with the times — some argue Augusta was a century behind — by adding female members would constitute a “joyous occasion.”
Even so, Augusta National comes out a winner because it still called the shots.
Former chairman Hootie Johnson said as much 10 years ago when he felt Martha Burk and her women’s advocacy group were threatening the Masters because the club had no women as members.
“There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet,” Johnson said.
In an interview in his office later that year, Johnson distributed a historical summary of the club and the Masters, the highest-rated golf telecast in the world.
“Our society is changing, and it is only natural that our club should reflect these changes in contemporary society,” Johnson wrote in the one-page summary. “We are finding more and more, our existing members’ suggestions for new members have broadened to include a varied cross section of this society. We expect this trend to continue.”
It seems as though Augusta was headed in this direction all along.
A person with knowledge of club operations said Rice and Moore first were considered as members five years ago. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because club matters are private, suspects Payne knew in April during the Masters that two women would be fitted for a green jacket by the end of the year.
The announcement was not at the point of a bayonet. It was done in typical, understated Augusta National fashion.
And it nearly left Burk speechless, but only for a moment.
“Oh my God. We won,” she blurted out.
Yes, Burk can claim a victory, too.
Some might argue that trying to corner Johnson in 2002 only delayed the inevitable. But there was nothing to suggest from the public’s viewpoint — everything is so secretive at his Georgia club — that a female member was in the works.
“This is a good turn of events,” Burk said. “It came sooner than I expected. I thought they were going to try to outlast me. And I really thought they would wait until the women’s movement would get no credit. But if we had not done what we did, this would not have happened now. There’s a possibility it would not have happened for 20 or 30 years.”
Did her protest slow progress at a club that does nothing quickly?
“I think the ‘point of a bayonet’ was indicative of the mindset, not only of Hootie but the steering body,” Burk said. “No, I don’t think it would have happened sooner. They had no intention of having a woman member.”
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem no longer has to cringe when the subject of Augusta National’s membership is brought up. The tour has a policy not to play at golf courses that don’t have women or minorities. But the PGA Tour has no control over the Masters. It was suggested to Finchem on more than one occasion that the tour no longer recognize the Masters as an official win, and not have its earnings count toward the PGA Tour money list.
Finchem finally said in May that the Masters was “too important” to ignore.
“We don’t get to determining whether their policies are right or wrong, because we don’t have to, because we made the conclusion that regardless of those policies, we are going to continue to play and recognize them as part of the PGA Tour,” he said some of his most blunt remarks.
Finchem weighed in on Augusta’s announcement Monday by commending the club.
“At a time when women represent one of the fastest growing segments in both playing and following the game of golf, this sends a positive and inclusive message for our sport,” he said.
Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were among those who applauded the decision. Perhaps their biggest cheer is not having to answer questions about it. Whatever their feelings — and golfers are known to play it safe whenever topics turn controversial — all they cared about at Augusta National was winning the green jacket.
It comes with a lifetime exemption to the Masters, and a spot in the Champions Locker Room upstairs in the clubhouse. And if they win the Masters in April, they will be invited to a dinner hosted by members, including two of the newest members — Rice and Moore.