Tuesday’s weather forecast for Augusta, Ga., was for temperatures in the low 80s and a 30 percent possibility of isolated storms. Barring something unexpected, then, chances were excellent that the sun would indeed rise, the world would not end, and Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts were not rolling over in their graves — although Augusta National Golf Club would neither confirm nor deny that last part, since it remains a private club matter.
Life as we know it, at least for most of us, remains pretty much the same as it was the day before. Monday’s announcement that Augusta National has added its first two female members — former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, a financier from South Carolina — is certainly newsworthy, and good for golf. While I’m on board in saying it’s absolutely the right move, I’m not entirely sold on this being the cultural benchmark that some activists are calling it. That a group of wealthy, powerful men saw fit to finally include two wealthy, powerful women does little for the common folk except improve the club’s image. But if you’re wired to trumpet change simply for change’s sake, fire away.
Golf has much larger and weightier issues than whether Augusta National would ever end its all-male membership roster, which had been in place since the club’s doors officially opened in 1933. But those are for another time, I suppose.
Those who profess to be in the know predicted this was coming, sooner rather than later. Probably much sooner, if not for the spat involving Martha Burk and Hootie Johnson 10 years ago when Johnson, then the Augusta National chairman, replied to a letter from Burk, at the time the chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, that the club might invite women some day, but “not at the point of a bayonet.”
Johnson’s comment exploded, obviously, and brought the club’s female member issue squarely into the national news spotlight. It has remained there ever since, in varying degrees, with Johnson and then his successor as club chairman, Billy Payne, asked every year at the Masters about the lack of female members. The answer was always clear, and consistent: The club’s membership matters are, and would remain, private.
If any part of Monday’s news was expected, it’s the manner in which it was delivered. The safe money said that when — not if — this day would come, the unveiling would come straight from Augusta National, not some news leak that the club would be forced to react to. If there’s been one constant since the club opened, it’s that it doesn’t like being told what to do, or when to do it. As everyone knows — the PGA Tour, CBS, others — Augusta National plays by its own rules.
Label, up until now, the all-male membership at Augusta National however you would like: Sexist, racist, discriminatory, snobby, too rich, too powerful, too white. When you combine that kind of power, money, and ego, criticism for every step or misstep typically comes with it.
The word that finally forced Augusta National’s hand, apparently, is hypocritical.
At Payne’s pre-Masters news conference this year, he closed his opening remarks by reiterating the club’s interest in helping grow the game, pledging funds and resources to golf organizations with expansion and inclusive initiatives. Fine and good, but how could Payne, and his club, stand on the soapbox and discuss ways to introduce newcomers to golf, while at the same time keeping out a growing segment of those — women — who play?
The club’s public stance and private practice didn’t mesh, and almost begged for an outcry, which it received, from some corners, earlier this year when Virginia Rometty became the CEO of IBM, one of the Masters’ longtime sponsors. The people who held the title before Rometty — all men — were given Augusta National memberships, leaving many to wonder: Would the club finally invite a female?
Now they have. But not Rometty, evidently. In Rice and Moore, Augusta National has selected two successful, strong candidates approaching 60 (Moore is 58, Rice 57) with an interest in golf and the professional chops to fit right in with their fellow members. They’ll also be able to deftly handle their role in this, which you can bet was at least a partial factor before the invitations were put in the mail.
Despite Burk claiming victory — “Oh my God. We won” was her reaction to Monday’s news — the real winner is the game, which has fought stigmas in this country since it began to take hold late in the 19th century. Too elitist, too expensive, too exclusive.
For years, Augusta National, by its actions (or inaction), perpetuated that. Now, with its actions — and words, taking the extremely unusual step of publicizing membership news — the club can talk about growing the game with only one face, instead of two.