Augusta National Golf Club, host of the Masters tournament and keeper of many golf traditions, overturned its decades-old and controversial policy Monday by admitting its first two female members. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore will be the first women to wear the club's storied green jackets.
"This is a joyous occasion," chairman Billy Payne said in a statement making the surprise announcement by the club, which has been male-only since its inception 80 years ago.
Martha Burk, the former head of the National Council of Women's Organizations, whose letter to then-chairman Hootie Johnson in 2002 stirred national discussion of Augusta's membership policy, said in a telephone interview: "I feel it's a great victory. We won. This is a great day for us. We're very pleased."
Johnson had responded to Burk's letter with his own missive that said the club might one day include women as members, then added the phrase that became infamous, "but not at the point of a bayonet."
The debate roiled again at the Masters in April when Payne declined to answer repeated questions about the lack of female members. The issue became prickly because Virginia Rometty had become the new chief executive of IBM, and it was common knowledge that the past four IBM chief executives, all male, were Augusta National members.
Instead of Rometty, the first invitations went to Rice, a golf enthusiast who has visited the Masters, and Moore, vice president of Rainwater Inc., a private investment company that was established by her husband, Richard Rainwater. Moore, 58, is a friend of Johnson.
Rice, 57, issued a statement through the club in which she said: "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. I have long admired the important role Augusta National has played in the traditions and history of golf. I also have an immense respect for the Masters Tournament and its commitment to grow the game of golf, particularly with youth, here in the United States and throughout the world."
Augusta National, which opened in 1932, did not have a black member until 1990. The club is believed to have about 300 members. Before Monday, women were allowed to play the course only as guests.
"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 in a statement. "I am fortunate to have many friends who are members at Augusta National, so to be asked to join them as a member represents a very happy and important occasion in my life."
Tiger Woods released a statement Monday, saying: "I think the decision by the Augusta National membership is important to golf. The club 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."
Jean Schob, one of the first female members at Winged Foot Golf Club in Westchester in the early 1990s, said, "I think it's a wonderful thing." She said she and other women never faced any discrimination once they joined. "They welcomed us. You know, it was just the changing of the times. Winged Foot did it when I wished all the clubs had done it. They did it in the right way, I think."
Rickie Fowler, a PGA Tour pro doing a youth clinic at Huntington Crescent Club Monday, said, "It's pretty cool. Augusta is a special place to me, to any golfer. I definitely respect what they do."