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Augusta, home of the Masters golf tournament, admits first women

August 20, 2012|By David Zucchino | This post has been corrected, as indicated below

A decade after former Augusta National Golf Club chairman Hootie Johnson swore that the home of the Masters golf tournament would not admit women β€œat the point of a bayonet,” the club has quietly invited two prominent women to join.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore have accepted membership invitations, the club announced Monday β€” 22 years after admitting its first black members.

The move came with little advance notice, and at a time when controversy over the previously all-male club in eastern Georgia had cooled somewhat. The club, long a citadel of Southern privilege and exclusivity — and racism and sexism, according to its critics — gave no explanation for a sudden reversal of policy. But Augusta National’s current chairman called it “a joyous occasion.”

In a prepared statement, Billy Payne, who replaced Johnson as Augusta National chairman in 2006, said: “We enthusiastically welcome Secretary Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore as members of Augusta National Golf Club.’’

Payne referred to the decision as “a significant and positive time in our Club’s history.”

He added: “These accomplished women share our passion for the game of golf and both are well known and respected by our membership. It will be a proud moment when we present Condoleezza and Darla their Green Jackets when the Club opens this fall.’’

Payne offered no details about the membership process, or why Rice and Moore were invited. The club has long refused to discuss membership procedures.

“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.”

Augusta National, which once required that all caddies be black, admitted its first black members in 1990. For years, it has allowed women to play the course as guests.

In 2003, Martha Burk, then the chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, staged protests at the club and mounted a national campaign to pressure Augusta into admitting women. Defenders of the club responded with their own protests against what they called outside interference.

Johnson, a Georgia native and investment banker who played football for the University of South Carolina, replied brusquely with his “bayonet” comment. He said any private club can decide for itself whom to invite as members, whether it’s Augusta National, sororities, fraternities or the Boy Scouts. He called Burk’s criticism “offensive and coercive.”

“You know, some of the media tries to portray us — or this woman portrays us — as being discriminatory, and being bigots. And we're not,” Johnson said in response to a letter from Burk. “We're a private club. We will prevail because we're right.”

Neither Johnson, whose given name is William, nor Burk immediately responded to requests for comment Monday.

But Burk told the Associated Press: “Oh my God. We won. It's about 10 years too late for the boys to come into the 20th century, never mind the 21st century. But it's a milestone for women in business.’’

She added: “It came sooner than I expected. I thought they were going to try to outlast me. And I really thought they would wait until the women's movement would get no credit. But if we had not done what we did, this would not have happened now.”

In a statement released by the club, Rice 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.”

Moore, 58, became the highest-paid woman in the banking industry. She is vice president of Rainwater Inc., a private investment company founded by her husband, Richard Rainwater.

“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.”

The issue of membership for women arose most recently at this spring’s tournament after IBM, one of the Masters’ biggest corporate sponsors, appointed Virginia Rometty as its chief executive. The company’s four previous CEOs — all men — had been Augusta National members.

But Rometty was not announced as a club member. On the final day of the tournament, she wore a pink blazer, not the club’s signature green blazer.

[For the record, 2:37 p.m. Aug. 20: An earlier version of this post said Hootie Johnson played football for the University of Georgia. He played for the University of South Carolina.]

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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