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It's a Brave New World at Augusta National
When the announcement came last summer that Augusta National had admitted its first two female members — Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore — some popped champagne corks, while others grumbled into their whiskey about the venerable club’s caving to political pressure. After more than a decade of protesting, stonewalling, name-calling and wrangling, America’s most famous course — with apologies to Merion, Winged Foot, Pebble Beach and many others — would have women who are actual members walking its manicured Bermuda grass fairways, rather than spouses of made men.
For many, it was the merciful end to a long debate.
“Tell Martha Burk it’s time to go home,” said former PGA Tour member and current ESPN analyst Paul Azinger.
For others, the battle still raged.
“It ain’t over,” said Burk, former chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, who began the fight to get women members on the Augusta rolls in 2002.
Augusta’s move may have quieted things a bit, but it won’t send Burk and others on her side in search of other fights. Rice and Moore are two high-profile, extremely worthy candidates for admission to the club, but adding two women to an institution with roughly 300 male members isn’t going to get it done, at least for supporters of women’s rights. But while the story isn’t over, it isn’t the same tale that was told a decade — and more — ago. Augusta is no longer a stodgy bastion of chauvinism, and not just because Rice and Moore have joined up. Though not quite as progressive as, say, the ACLU, Augusta National’s membership is more 21st century corporate leaders than antediluvian sexists. And those men realize that excluding women from anything is bad business.
The club isn’t afraid of a fight, though. Some speculate, with good reason, that Augusta National would have opened its doors to women earlier, had Burk not begun protesting the all-male policy in 2002. Once that started, Augusta National almost had to hold out. Former chairman Hootie Johnson’s comment that the club wouldn’t admit women “at the point of a bayonet” reflected that attitude. “They didn’t have to cave,” Azinger says.
Well, Augusta National probably did have to “cave.” If it didn’t host The Masters, the most esteemed golfing event on the planet, whether it had women members wouldn’t have been an issue, since there are still some clubs (prestigious Pine Valley among them) that remain all-male. Women — along with many men — would have still wanted to join the club, but there wouldn’t have been the same attention given to their quest.
Because the club makes 10 figures annually from the tournament, and because the PGA Tour mandates now that any course that stages a sanctioned event must have a membership that is not just comprised of white men, Augusta National’s makeup became a target.
“The fact that the club is part of a massive event is the reason it was protested,” Azinger says. “It became political.”
For Burk and many others, this isn’t about golf, especially since Moore doesn’t play too often. (Rice has said she’s about a 14 handicap and is also a member at San Francisco Golf Club and Shoal Creek, among others.) This is more about power. Or, rather, the access to it. A look at the membership list at Augusta confirms that. Big hitters like Warren Buffett, T. Boone Pickens and Bill Gates are among the Augusta National lineup. It doesn’t matter whether they can drive the ball 300 yards or are barely qualified to play the windmill hole at a mini-golf course.
When they sit down to have a drink and chat, big things can happen. Granting women access to those conversations is at the heart of the fight. As women are kept out of high-level, though casual, discussions at clubs like Augusta, so too are they omitted from big dealings on the corporate level.
“When you have a roster of Fortune 500 execs engaging in a mass exclusion, it sends the message to the business community that it’s okay to do that,” Burk says.
The Augusta National stance had been that its private status allowed it to choose anyone it wanted as members. From its founding in 1933, until 1990, those chosen were male and white. In ’90, after the firestorm that enveloped Alabama’s Shoal Creek Golf Club regarding its white-only membership, Augusta admitted African-American members. Twenty-two years later, the club’s trademark green jacket was tailored to fit women.
“Augusta had to be pistol-whipped behind closed doors to let African-Americans be admitted,” Burk says. “This smacks of the same thing.”
When Burk and her compatriots began hammering at Augusta in ’02, then-chairman Johnson — a close friend of Moore’s and a fellow University of South Carolina graduate — said that if organizations like the Girl Scouts, Junior League, Boy Scouts and various fraternities and sororities could have single-sex memberships, Augusta could also. The difference was that Augusta National hosts The Masters every April, and the Tri-Delts don’t. That’s what gave those fighting the exclusion of women ammunition. The Masters is (arguably) a public event, and the club that hosts it was acting as “a de facto public accommodation,” according to Burk, referring to the term used in the Civil Rights Act that prevents discrimination in any establishment open to the public.
Trouble is, the state of Georgia doesn’t have a public accommodation statute. So, when a number of law firms approached Burk and the NCWO about taking the fight to the courtrooms, they found some roadblocks. Big roadblocks.
“When (the firms) got a little into it, they saw some barriers that were not insurmountable, but were very difficult,” Burk says. Since the legal path was rocky, the only way left was through protest, raised voices and as much political pressure as the NCWO and its allies could muster.
“It became a political issue,” Azinger says. “It’s a misnomer that women weren’t allowed there. That’s not the case. Women played there every day.”
Don’t get Azinger wrong. He’s delighted that Rice and Moore have been admitted. “I think it’s great,” he says. And he has company.
“I am extremely pleased to see the decision by Augusta National,” said three-time Masters champion Gary Player via e-mail. “For a club representing the pinnacle of the golfing world, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore are excellent choices to become the first female members and will no doubt do the appointment great justice. Of course, this is a historic change and echoes the importance of women in golf. I can only hope that this will continue to grow female participation in golf throughout the world.”
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The decision to admit Rice and Moore is viewed by some as less a heroic than an inevitable act. Although The Masters lost TV sponsors for two years after 2002, corporate involvement has grown back, and now big timers like IBM and AT&T can be found on the tourney’s web site. But as women gain influence (some say too slowly) in the political and business arenas, staging a prestigious public event like The Masters at a club that refused admission to women was almost impossible. Chairman Billy Payne and Johnson agreed that Moore and Rice would be appropriate as the first women admitted. Although Augusta National’s membership process is extremely secretive, and often candidates don’t even know they are being considered, Payne took the unusual step of announcing their admission.
“This is a joyous occasion as we enthusiastically welcome Secretary Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore as members of Augusta National Golf Club,” read the beginning of his statement released last August. (Payne would not comment for this article.)
Payne continued to describe the “deliberate” consideration given each candidate for membership and the “extended period of time” over which any application is considered. That happens at most clubs. There were reports that Rice and Moore were first considered five years ago. Talk about deliberate.
Now that two women are in, can we expect a flood of females in green jackets dining in the Grill Room and sitting on the stately clubhouse’s porch, sipping cool drinks and making deals?
“It’s important for the dinosaurs to die off,” Donna Lopiano says. “You then hope the next generation does better.”
Lopiano is the president of Connecticut-based Sports Management Resources, which helps colleges and universities with athletics-related issues, including Title IX compliance. When it comes to gender equity in college sports, it’s hard to find someone with more experience, knowledge or battle scars.
She wasn’t in the middle of the Augusta skirmish, but she knows the value of the two women’s admission. She also understands that Rice and Moore constitute a good start — and little else.
“Was it inevitable Augusta would succumb to pressure?” she asks. “Yes. Is it enough? No. But you have to start somewhere. It’s the same thing with people of color.”
To comprehend fully the Augusta situation, people have to understand the country club ethos. All over America, there are clubs that practice exclusionary tactics. Some are segregated — gently — according to religion. Many have no, or precious few, African-American members. And many don’t admit many women members. Wives of members can play golf and have the run of the clubhouse — though not the men’s grill. But they aren’t on the membership rolls. Part of that is due to the fact that more men play golf than women. But that’s changing. When Rice and Moore were announced as members at Augusta National, PGA chief Tim Finchem noted that “women represent one of the fastest growing segments in both playing and watching the game of golf” and that their admission “sends a positive and inclusive message.” Just like many other things in society, the country club world is changing.
That the club’s members were all white and male for decades was hardly a shock, given the fact that many other clubs in the country had that distinction. Augusta National’s leadership felt that was its prerogative as a private institution. And in fact, many men who wanted in were stonewalled completely or made to endure a purgatorial waiting period. Gates’ public craving of a green jacket left even him on the outside for a while. To many members, the furor over admitting women was not about sexism; it was about being able to gather with friends to play golf, enjoy a meal and celebrate tradition. Now that women have been admitted, be they two or 200 in number, it’s unlikely that many of the older male members will be inviting females to join their foursomes on the course or share a drink with them after 18 holes, but the younger crowd (and we’re talking people in their 50s here, not 20s) will likely shrug it off as further evidence of progress.
“It was much ado about nothing,” Azinger says. “There still remain a few freedoms in this land. You can still have a private club. The fact that (Augusta) admitted women is fantastic. The timing was right.
“It was never an all-men’s club. Women have always been allowed to play golf there. There were just no single women members at the club.”
Now, there are two. And while it might make things a little awkward at this year’s Members’ Weekend, when 300 or so men and two women converge on Augusta National, it’s unlikely there will be any trouble in coming years. There probably won’t be an annual admission of women, although since Augusta National keeps its membership practices quiet, we won’t know for sure. But there will be more to come. Expect IBM CEO Ginni Rometty to get a call at some point, even though she doesn’t care much for the game, simply because one of the benefits of reaching her lofty perch is an Augusta National invite. Adding Carol Semple Thompson, perhaps the most decorated U.S. women’s amateur golfer, would be a strong move. This is the 21st century, after all, and though the pace may not suit Burk and others, the world is changing.
As for The Masters, don’t expect Rice and Moore’s inclusion to matter very much at all. Players will be asked about it. Some will respond positively. Others, like the 90 percent who anonymously told Golf Magazine in 2011 that they didn’t care too much that Augusta National didn’t admit women, will be non-committal. It didn’t hurt the cause that 2012 Masters champ Bubba Watson told the publication in ’11: “Yeah, I care, and you can quote me on that.” And when Tiger Woods was asked about the move, he was enthusiastic and called it “important to golf.” For the most part, life will go on as usual. Players will rise and fall on the leaderboard, and the TV types will still treat the tournament as if it were High Mass.
Burk, on the other hand, will keep pushing.
“When they finally (admitted women), they did it after 10 years of resistance,” she says. “They haven’t done all that much. It was a small step, a very small step. What happens in the future is more important than one token gesture.”
But you have to start somewhere.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, GOLFER
Listen to Condoleezza Rice talk about her game, and she sounds just like any other golfer. Says she’s good off the tee and pretty strong on the greens. It’s that last 150 yards that give her trouble. If she could just handle those better…
Rice does practice her craft, although she has only been at the game for about seven years. In addition to her newly minted Augusta National membership, she belongs to four other clubs.
During an interview last August, she said her handicap was “down to a 14,” while other reports have her at a 16. That doesn’t matter. What does is that she’s a fine athlete who was once a competitive figure skater and an excellent tennis player.
But while her tennis game is receding, her golf game is improving, especially now that she has more time to play since leaving her position as Secretary of State after George W. Bush’s presidential tenure ended.
“She’s a terrific player,” former PGA Tour member and current ESPN analyst Paul Azinger says. “She’s an athlete.”
In a 2011 interview with Golf Digest, Rice spoke of her desire to work on the game, saying she doesn’t do anything just as a diversion and that the “best part of golf is that unlike my tennis game, I can actually get better.”
She now has one heckuva place to pursue that improvement.
—by Michael Bradley
This article appeared in the 2013 edition of Athlon Sports' Golf Annual. Order your copy here.