AUGUSTA, Georgia USA – Augusta National Golf Club, the famed home of the Masters tournament, announced that it had finally ended its all-male policy and would admit the first women members in its 80-year history.
The decision signals a new era for the club with former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore accepting invitations to join a golfing institution that is revered for its traditions.
Augusta, however, has in recent years come under intense pressure to end its all-male policy, a stance seen as sexist and unacceptable in the 21st century and in an era of burgeoning competition in women’s golf.
“This is a joyous occasion as we enthusiastically welcome Secretary Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore as members of Augusta National Golf Club,” said Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta, in Georgia.
“These accomplished women share our passion for the game of golf. It will be a proud moment when we present Condoleezza and Darla their Green Jackets when the club opens this fall.”
The question of female exclusion had arisen in April each year when the club hosts the Masters, the first golfing “major” tournament of the season.
In 2003 Martha Burk, a leader in the National Council of Women’s Organizations, conducted a rally across the street from Augusta, which was founded in 1932 and where the first black member was admitted in 1990.
Hootie Johnson, Augusta’s chairman in 2003, had gone so far as to release broadcast sponsors from their advertising commitments when Burk threatened to target them for backing the club’s men-only policy.
This year discussion of women members focused on the appointment of Virginia Rometty as chief executive of IBM — previous bosses of the electronics giant had been members at Augusta.
Payne refused to be drawn into a debate of the issue when it was raised in the days before the Masters, but said that the process for admitting Rice and Moore had been the same as for any other member.
“Consideration with regard to any candidate is deliberate, held in strict confidence and always takes place over an extended period of time,” Payne said. “The process for Condoleezza and Darla was no different.
“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.”
Four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods and the Republican challenger for the White House Mitt Romney were among those welcoming the move.
“The decision by the Augusta National membership is important to golf,” Woods said. “I would like to congratulate both new members, especially my friend Condi Rice.”
Romney tweeted his approval, while White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama welcomed the decision.
Rice, 57, served as national security advisor under former President George W. Bush and became secretary of state in his second term in office.
She became the first black woman to serve as a provost of Stanford University in 1993, and is now a professor of political economy at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
“I have visited Augusta National on several occasions and look forward to playing golf, renewing friendships and forming new ones through this very special opportunity,” Rice said in a statement released by the club.
“I have long admired the important role Augusta National has played in the traditions and history of golf,” it added.
Moore, 58, is vice president of private investment company Rainwater Incorporated and was the first woman to be profiled on the cover of Fortune Magazine.
Her gifts to her alma mater, the University of South Carolina, include a $25 million contribution and the university’s school of business is named for her.
“Augusta National has always captured my imagination, and is one of the most magically beautiful places anywhere in the world, as everyone gets to see during the Masters each April,” Moore said of the club known for its towering pines and flowering azaleas.
“Above all, Augusta National and the Masters Tournaments have always stood for excellence, and that is what is so important to me.”
While former chairman Johnson once said Augusta National wouldn’t admit women “at the point of a bayonet”, Burk said Monday she believed the pressure she and others brought to bear paved the way for Rice and Moore’s invitations.
“Not me personally, the women’s movement … yeah, we won,” Burk said in an interview with ESPN radio.
Johnson argued that as a private club Augusta had the right to restrict its membership, while Burk countered that its role as host of the Masters and as a meeting ground for the nation’s elite should bar such discriminatory practices.
Johnson told The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, the move was “wonderful news” for the club he once guided.
“I could not be more pleased,” he said.