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At Augusta National Golf Club, after 80 years, women golfers take the green

Condoleezza Rice, right, former Secretary of State and

Condoleezza Rice, right, former Secretary of State and new Augusta National member, laughs on the practice range with members Dave Dorman, left, and Pat Battle, center, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. (April 7, 2013) Credit: AP

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The years of heated dialogue over Augusta National Golf Club's all-male policy has given way to the celebration of its first two female members in the club's 80-year history.

The cloud of controversy has been lifted and this year's prestigious Masters tournament will be mostly about golf.

After Augusta National refused to succumb to years of pressure and criticism for its policy, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore were admitted to the exclusive club in August.

Rice, 58, played a practice round with three-time champion Phil Mickelson on Sunday and was wearing one of the club's trademark green jackets.

"I had a great time with one of the new members on Sunday, and [she] happens to be one of my favorite people to spend time with: fascinating, intelligent," Mickelson said Tuesday. "I just think the world of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; I'm a big fan of hers."

Moore, 58, vice president of Rainwater, Inc., a private investment company, has yet to make an appearance at the club this week. In an interview with MSNBC on Sunday, Moore called her invitation to join Augusta National "a lifetime honor. It was humbling, exciting; it was a very big deal in one's life.

The issue gained national attention in 2003 when activist Martha Burk protested outside the Masters and battled with then-chairman Hootie Johnson. It flared again last year during Masters chairman Billy Payne's annual news conference. At the time, he said that membership issues were private. But when Rice and Moore were admitted in August, the club sent out a news release, including a statement from Payne saying, "This is a joyous occasion."

There are no changes in the format or the presentation of this week's tournament, which begins Thursday, but there is no denying that this is a new era for one of the most iconic clubs and events in golf.

"I think it's just fantastic," said Tiger Woods, who has won the Masters four times and is favored to win this year. "The timing is right." He declined to criticize the club for not admitting women, but he was enthusiastic at his news conference Tuesday about Rice, who was provost at Stanford University when Woods was a student there.

"[They] couldn't have had a better person," Woods said of Rice, who greeted him on the practice range Sunday.

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