Augusta National Takes A Small Step For Womankind

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 07: A flag with the Augusta National logo is seen during the Par 3 Contest prior to the 2010 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2010 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Augusta National's decision to let two women join the club is a positive step for golf -- but let's not make more of it than it is.

“The sun will rise, the sun will set, and I’ll have lunch,” was former Boston GM Lou Gorman’s ho-hum response to yet another soap opera surrounding his Red Sox. On Monday, I wondered why it was with a similar lack of enthusiasm that I greeted the “joyous” news that Augusta National had invited two women to break its 80-year-old gender barrier -- a move that many applauded as a huge step forward for human rights. It eventually came to me that it was the hypocrisy surrounding the announcement that rankled.

Augusta National chair Billy Payne’s declaration on Monday that the club had added two women (Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore) to its membership roster was, of course, the correct move -- however long overdue. And, perhaps, there will be a trickle-down effect from one of the world’s most prestigious clubs finally allowing two wealthy, powerful women to mix and mingle among the 300 or so other rich, entitled members: more opportunities may open up for women in the golf industry, as well as for those who just want to feel more welcome on the fairways and in the clubhouse.

Who knows? Augusta National’s about-face could even cause Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson to see the light and urge last year’s British Open host, Royal St. George, to admit women.

Closer to home, maybe LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan -- who hailed Augusta National’s new membership practice as a “step forward," and brought to light the club’s strong financial support for girls golf -- can prevail upon Payne to host one of his tour’s events on Bobby Jones’ hallowed turf.

But, please, Mssrs. Payne and (PGA Tour commissioner Tim) Finchem, spare us your insincere palaver about what a great day it is for America and the world. Certainly, Augusta spiffed up its image and Finchem will no longer have to defend his tour for staging its most celebrated event at a venue that discriminates against more than half the population.

Through the years, the issue has never been whether Augusta National had the right to exclude women from joining. As a private club, it can open (and close) its doors to whomever it pleases. The more troublesome aspect has been the PGA Tour’s willingness -- nay, eagerness -- to kowtow to the antediluvian practices of those who hosted a tournament Finchem labeled “too important” to remove from its schedule.

So, excuse me for not gushing with enthusiasm over Finchem’s congratulatory message to Augusta: “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.”

Then there was Payne, who, like his predecessor, Hootie Johnson, stonewalled attempts even to speak about his club’s sacred membership rules -- until he threw a tradition unlike any other to the wind and decided to stage a very public flip-flop.

Before the Masters kicked off in April, Payne paid lip service to how his club was dedicated to growing the game -- conveniently skirting any mention of how Augusta excluded what even Finchem conceded was “one of the fastest growing segments” in golf. Indeed, as soon as the issue of allowing women entry via the members-only gate arose (as it has annually, since Martha Burk’s unsuccessful 2002 protest campaign), Payne said internal club matters were none of anyone’s damn business.

“All issues of membership are now and have been historically subject to private deliberations of the members,” he stated flatly about the subject that became an overarching theme of this year’s Masters -- thanks to long-time Masters sponsor IBM naming a woman as its chief executive. Virginia Rometty, appearing at the 2012 Masters in a jacket that was most definitely not green (unlike her male predecessors, each of whom was an Augusta member), became the lightning rod for change when she took over Big Blue’s corner office.

Fast forward five months, and Payne has done a dramatic 180. He said it would “be a proud moment” for him to present Rice and Moore with their very own green jackets when the club opened in October.

"This is a joyous occasion,” Payne said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. “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.”

In the end -- and without devling into larger and far more critical societal issues -- it does not really matter whether Augusta National tip-toed into the 21st century because of pressure from one of its primary sponsors, or because Payne truly is as forward-thinking as many golf observers believe him to be. The fact is that the club, after all, did the right thing.

Augusta's two newest members will take a small step for womankind when they tee it up at the course this fall -- a step that can only help the game of golf.

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