Condoleezza Rice tees off during the Pro-Am event prior to the start of the… (Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty…)
My applause for the admission of the first two women to Augusta National Golf Club is tempered by a question.
They're really going to wear the green jackets like Billy Payne promised? Are we sure they're not going to be asked to instead wear green skirts?
I hate to be cynical about Monday's landmark decision by the folks who run the Masters golf tournament, but it only makes sense that the opening of a door that has been closed for 80 years would be accompanied by lots of creaks.
The most unsettling noise came from Payne, the Augusta chairman, who said the admission of women to the club's membership was a "joyous occasion." How sad that there are places in this country where, in 2012, gender equity is considered a "joyous occasion."
Cheers for Augusta for admitting former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore. But it's a shame America's golf shrine is taking so long to embrace America's values.
Or, in the words of tweeter @charleslfreemn, "I want to take this time to welcome the Augusta National Golf Club to the mid-20th century."
As a private club, Augusta certainly had the right to exclude, and it's not the only place where that happens. Even today, the oldest golf club in the world, at Scotland's legendary Muirfield links, does not allow women as members.
But as the very-public host of one of most celebrated sports events in the world's most inclusive countries, Augusta has a duty to include. If you are going to step inside millions of American homes for four days a year, your private rights are outweighed by a public responsibility to act with decency and integrity.
Augusta's refusal to allow a black member for 58 years — the club wasn't integrated until 1990 — was indecent. Augusta's refusal to allow a female member even after a public outcry several years ago lacked integrity.
During the 2002 furor led by activist Martha Burk, then-Augusta chairman Hootie Johnson said the club might one day change its exclusionary ways, "but not at the point of a bayonet." That comment made it seem as if Augusta was not only a golf club, but a Johnny Reb Civil War reeanactment troop, which is fine, as long as you're not fighting those battles as a backdrop to an influential golf tournament.
Augusta has always wanted it both ways, acting as a private bunch of good ol' boys who want to sell a product in a very public forum. That might work in the rest of society, but it doesn't work on a sports landscape that leads the rest of the nation in the areas of racial and gender equality.
Think about it. Augusta has finally empowered women 40 years after Title IX legislated the inclusion of women in education. Augusta has finally recognized women the same summer that our U.S. Olympic team contained more women then men.
Yeah, so it's great, but don't suddenly be nominating Augusta National for a Nobel Peace Prize. The approximately 300 members are not doing the courageous or noble thing, they are simply doing the right thing.
I've seen them do the wrong thing. I was there in 2003 when Burk's protest occurred on a dusty patch of land down the street from the course. Fewer than 50 people joined her. Inside the gates, fans and officials were literally laughing at her. How dare a measly woman attack the virtues of golf's greatest men?
I've also been there during the chairman's annual news briefings, when media members fired off gender-related questions that were met with genteel arrogance and condescension. How dare you question the virtues of golf's greatest men?
I've complained about Augusta National so much over the years, folks have asked why I would still cover a tournament there. Well, that's the issue. The event is too big to ignore. Augusta National is too influential to avoid.
A couple of years ago, I was covering the Masters when a security guard refused to allow a female reporter to join her male colleagues in the locker room to interview a player. No such rule existed, and the Masters' conscientious media folks immediately apologized for the misunderstanding, but in Augusta there existed a climate where a random guard's first instinct would be to exclude a woman.
Maybe that's changing now. Maybe the stilted culture is shifting. Maybe the ancient values are evolving.
Maybe next spring one of the two new female members will be allowed the very public job — now shared by other members — of running the daily player news conference. Maybe one of the women will be allowed to hold her own news conference, adding more transparency to the way of this cloistered community. Maybe the green jackets will lighten up and loosen up and become more like the truly wide, wide world of sports in which they live.
I agreed with Payne on Monday when he said, "This is a significant and positive time in our club's history."
I'm hoping it's just a start.