Golf

How wide are Augusta's open arms?

Billy Payne
Augusta National chairman Billy Payne has introduced his changes slowly.
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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Augusta National, the most exclusive golf club in the world and host of the sport’s most thrilling major, the Masters, has admitted its first two female members.

Typically, the club did what it should’ve done long ago, on its own timetable, and did it when eyes were looking elsewhere.

I’m, frankly, surprised that a news release was issued Monday touting the news that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore had accepted invitations to join.

I expected to show up one of these springs and suddenly see a woman wandering through those Georgia Pines wearing a green jacket, just as Ron Townsend, the club’s first black member, emerged without fanfare in the wake of the Shoal Creek racial controversy in 1990.

That’s how they do things at Augusta National.

Predictably, the news that a male-only bastion has opened its doors to women has been greeted with cacophonous roars by those who see it as a giant leap forward.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.

But whatever it means, be sure, it was always going to happen.

When the membership — which includes Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Lynn Swann — elected Billy Payne as the club’s chairman in 2006, it was a clear signal that the young turks had taken over.

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Change was a comin’.

But what wasn’t going to happen was that the new regime would not in any way embarrass those who came before them.

That was important, and Payne knew he had to represent all of the membership — as he did in 2010 when he reluctantly lectured Tiger Woods on morals on behalf of the club — not just the ones with whom he saw eye to eye.

To allow women in right after the tenure of Hootie Johnson ended would have been a denunciation of the old guard.

So Payne took his time, as he did when he decided to roll back the “Tiger-proofing” of the course that had been Johnson’s other legacy. Tiger-proofing — stretching Augusta National so it became long and torturous, especially in bad weather — had turned the Masters into a US Open in April.

The tournament renowned for excitement and birdies and eagles had become a grind where par was king, greeted not by cheers but by polite applause. Little by little, Payne brought back the roars to Augusta National and, importantly, he did it with subtleness.

And now it’s taken him six years, but he has gotten two women in as members, which on Monday he hailed as “a joyous occasion."

"These accomplished women share our passion for the game of golf, and both are well known and respected by our membership," Payne said in a statement. "It will be a proud moment when we present Condoleezza and Darla their green jackets when the club opens this fall.

“This is a significant and positive time in our club's history and, on behalf of our membership, I wanted to take this opportunity to welcome them and all of our new members into the Augusta National family."

My colleague, USA Today's Christine Brennan — who has been agitating on the issue for years, whose columns triggered Martha Burk’s campaign of 2002 — hailed the “crucial statement to every girl and woman who has thought about picking up a golf club.”

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“The message is simple: You are welcome,” she writes.

“That same message is being sent to every girl and woman who has even thought about trying to enter a sport or a field of study or a job that boys and men have dominated. If Augusta National can bring in women, then anyone can.”

Burk, who a decade ago as the head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations staged a noisy campaign about the club’s membership policies, applauded the move, though couldn’t resist a little jab at the “boys."

"Oh my God. We won," she was quoted as saying. "It's about 10 years too late for the boys to come into the 20th century, never mind the 21st century. But it's a milestone for women in business."

It might be a milestone for some women. But what it’s not, and never has been, is some kind of victory for civil rights.

I have always been appalled that admitting a wealthy woman into Augusta National can in any way be equated to the civil rights battles.

Rosa Parks was told to get out of a seat on a bus — a seat designated for “coloreds” — so a white person could sit down.

Many of us, of all colors and genders, will never get a seat at Augusta National, where, I might add, women have for many years been welcomed to play the course. What Payne announced Monday is simply an acknowledgement that rich, privileged women should get to join rich, privileged clubs, too.

And that’s fair enough.

But now that the gender and racial barriers have been broken, it's time to bring down the last remaining one at Augusta National: class.

Now, Billy, let’s talk about my rights, because I want to be a member, too.

Tagged: Tiger Woods

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