Women finally fitted for green jackets at Augusta

What you need to understand about Augusta National Golf Course's decision to admit women for the first time is this: It was never about golf.

For those who supported the 80-year-old home of the Masters, it was about the right of a private club to choose its members on its own terms. It was about, for example, Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates reportedly being denied consideration for a time (he is a member now) because he made it known that he wanted to be a member.

For those who found the exclusion of women unsupportable and unseemly — the club finally admitted black men only in 1990 — it was about power and access. Former Augusta president Hootie Johnson once said it was about the four members-only parties held each year, not the golf. What he left unmentioned were the networking and deal-making opportunities there.

Augusta president Billy Payne announced Monday that memberships had been extended to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore, and both had accepted. Both women respect the game, and both were known and liked by the 300 or so members of Augusta, he said.

He said it was a "joyous occasion," but many others, including Martha Burk, said it was about time.

Ms. Burk is head of the National Council of Women's Organizations, and in 2002, she sent a private letter to Mr. Johnson, urging him to admit women in acknowledgment of their enthusiasm for golf and their patronage of the corporations that sponsor the Masters.

Mr. Johnson responded intemperately. He went public with the letter and declared that women would not be admitted to Augusta "at the point of a bayonet." Ms. Burk fired back, calling for a corporate boycott of the Masters. Mr. Johnson responded by cutting all the corporate sponsors loose, and the Masters did without their money for two years, living instead off lucrative foreign television rights.

That was in 2002. In 2003, I was sent to Georgia to cover what was expected to be a feminist freedom ride for golf. But it was an embarrassing failure, and what I found instead was a community that set its clock by the Masters — you could get your carpets cleaned "before the Masters" or "after the Masters" — and a community of sons who measured their growing up by the time they spent with their fathers in the grandstands at Augusta, clutching the rare and treasured ticket to the Masters.

Things came to a head again this spring when the new CEO of IBM, a longtime Masters sponsor, turned out to be a woman, Virginia Rometty, and everybody wanted to know if she would be invited to join, as had four previous CEOs, all of them men.

Again Billy Payne refused to discuss the super-secret membership process, and it was rumored, not for the first time, that perhaps there was already a woman member but that Augusta had seen fit to keep that secret, too. The fact that Mr. Payne made the announcement Monday is, of itself, kind of historic.

Ms. Rometty was not admitted, a fact that revealed itself when she was seen in the gallery wearing a pink jacket — not the traditional green jacket that allows members to identify each other. But she's a scuba diver, someone offered.

For their part, the players have always been appallingly silent on the matter, even when it was pointed out that only a Woods or a Michelson need speak up to resolve this. They would make jokes when asked about it, or say the matter never crossed their minds.

Why now? Why will Augusta welcome two new women members when it opens for play again in October? (Playing the course in the heat of a Georgia summer, it is thought, would cause irreparable damage, and it hasn't been done since Bobby Jones founded the place in the 1930s.)

It is, after all, an election season, and President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have said that if they ran Augusta, they would admit women.

But it also might be that golf will return to the Summer Olympics in 2016, and the eye of the International Olympic Committee is upon the sport. You will remember that every country sent women athletes to Olympics for the first time this year, bending to the will of the IOC.

You see? It has never been about golf.

Susan Reimer's column regularly appears on Thursdays and Mondays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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