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Mixed Reactions To Augusta National Entering The 20th Century

Augusta National admits women as members for the first time. Are congratulations in order, or was it too little, too late? You make the call.

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On a day when Roger Clemens gave fat tubs o’ lard the world over hope by announcing his return to the mound, Augusta National Golf Club admitted it was time to enter the 20th century (baby steps, folks) by inviting two women to join its formerly all-old-boys club.

For sure, Chairman Billy Payne’s pronouncement -- which went against the fabled club’s notorious "what happens at Augusta stays at Augusta" policy -- was historic, and many observers applauded the club for finally doing the right thing by allowing former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore onto its membership roster.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, who steadfastly refused to meddle in the private matters of a club he deemed "too important" to the tour’s schedule to reprimand, gave a golf clap to Augusta National on Monday.

"At a time when women represent one of the fastest growing segments in both playing and following the game of golf," Finchem said in a statement, "this sends a positive and inclusive message for our sport."

Both four-time Masters champ Tiger Woods and LPGA Tour Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam lauded Augusta National for changing its membership practices.

"I think the decision by the Augusta National membership is important to golf. The [c]lub continues to demonstrate its commitment to impacting the game in positive ways. I would like to congratulate both new members, especially my friend Condi Rice," Woods, who knows Rice via the Stanford University grapevine, told the Associated Press.

Sorenstam congratulated the host of the Masters Tournament in a statement released on her website.

"I was delighted to hear the news this morning that Augusta National has allowed two female members into their club," Sorenstam said. "The women invited, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, are highly respected women and business leaders. They will be great representatives for women in the game."

Suzy Whaley, who knows a little something about breaking the grass ceiling, told us by phone on Monday that she was extremely pleased to hear the news.

"I never thought I’d see it happen. I’m thrilled that they think women can add to the experience and to their business relationships [at Augusta]," Whaley, who, in 2003 became the first woman to qualify and participate in a PGA Tour event in 58 years, said after Payne’s unexpected statement.

"I’m looking forward to playing it at 9 a.m. on Saturday," Whaley, a perennial Golf Digest Top-50 instructor who teaches at Connecticut's TPC River Highlands, added with a laugh.

Long-time women’s-rights activist Arthur Little was similarly satisfied with Augusta National’s new policy.

"Pleasantly stunned," Little, who works tirelessly to make golf more women-friendly, said in an e-mail. "On a macro level, they finally got there and joined the new century. It is well past time and I was not sure it would happen in my lifetime, but I do salute them for getting there.

"On a selfish level," Little added, "I can now accept an invitation if I ever get one."

Marcia Chambers, whose 2002 "Ladies Need Not Apply" essay for Golf for Women Magazine helped spark Martha Burk’s unsuccessful campaign to prompt Augusta National to admit women, believes IBM’s naming of a woman chief executive earlier this year was behind the club’s public about-face.

While Burk’s protest flamed out, with former Augusta National chair Hootie Johnson’s infamous sneer that no one would force his club to admit female members "at the point of a bayonet," IBM CEO Virginia Rometty’s stature reignited calls for change at Bobby Jones’ staid old course.

"People who buy IBM’s products were not happy with [Augusta National’s] ongoing discrimination," Chambers said in a phone interview. The club was not about to name Rometty as one of its first women members, lest it be accused of "caving to public opinion," Chambers, who praised Payne for his forward-thinking "instincts," said.

"I’m very heartened [by the decision], finally after all these years," Chambers added. "I always believed that someday [Payne] would come around. He had the instincts and would figure out a way, and the IBM problem became the way."

Despite such high praise from so many quarters for Augusta National’s better-late-than-never progress, others signaled that they may have been more impressed with Clemens’ feat than they were by Augusta’s tepid step into a brave new world. From Joe Kepner, sports anchor for Orlando’s WFTV:

Indeed, Twitter exploded with observers providing virtual - and often sarcastic - pats on the back to Payne for pulling his club into at least the 20th century.

Noting the likely political affiliations of Augusta’s two new associates, ESPN’s Rick Reilly wondered what in the name of all that was sacred in the game of golf was Magnolia Lane coming to.

Perhaps Reuters columnist Anthony De Rosa said it best when he tweeted: