After a decade of criticism over its all-male membership, Augusta National Golf Club said Monday it had accepted its first two female members.
The 80-year-old club, which hosts the Masters tournament each April, invited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore to become members at the famous club.
“This is a joyous occasion,” Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne said in a statement.
The announcement potentially ends what had been a rancorous debate about the club’s membership. In 2002, Martha Burk of the National Council of Women’s Organizations organized a campaign to protest the club’s all-male status.
Former club chairman Hootie Johnson responded with a sharply worded letter saying the club would determine if and when it accepted a female member and “not at the point of a bayonet.”
“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.”
After Burk’s organized protest at the 2002 Masters, Augusta National made the decision to go without sponsorship on American television for two years while the controversy continued.
Burk on Monday claimed victory in her battle with Augusta National.
“Oh my God, we won,” she told The Associated Press. “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.”
The club gave no explanation for the reversal of its position.
Augusta National, which opened in December 1932, did not have a black member until 1990 and is believed to have about 300 members. Before now, women were allowed to play the golf course as guests, including on the Sunday before the Masters week begins.
Controversy over the club’s membership resurfaced last spring when Virginia Rometty became chief executive officer of IBM.
The previous four CEOs of the giant corporation – all men – had been Augusta National members. Questioned about it at his annual news conference in April, Payne followed precedent by not discussing “private deliberations” within the club.
A person with knowledge of club operations said Rice and Moore first were considered as members five years ago, The Associated Press reported.
That would be four years after the 2003 Masters, when Burk’s protest in a grass lot down the street from the club attracted only about 30 supporters, and one year after Payne became chairman. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the club keeps membership issues private, said Payne and Johnson agreed on the timing of a female member.
Moore, 58, is vice president of Rainwater Inc., a private investment company founded by her husband, Richard Rainwater.
The business school at the University of South Carolina, her alma mater, was renamed for Moore in 1998 after she made a $25 million donation. In 2004, she pledged another $45 million to USC and added another $5 million pledge last year. She has also pledged $10 million to Clemson University.
Moore is a close friend of Hootie Johnson, the former club chairman. The two worked together on a $300 million capital campaign for the University of South Carolina
“This is wonderful news for Augusta National Golf Club and I could not be more pleased,” Johnson said in a statement to The (Columbia) State newspaper.
Moore called Augusta National “one of the most magically beautiful places anywhere in the world” and said being invited to become a member is a happy and important occasion in her life.
“Above all,” she said, “Augusta National and the Masters Tournament have always stood for excellence and that is what is so important to me.”
Rice, 57, was Secretary of State under President George W. Bush in his second term. Now a professor at Stanford, Rice was recently appointed to the United States Golf Association’s nominating committee.
“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.
In his Monday announcement, Payne said: “It will be a proud moment when we present Condoleezza and Darla their green jackets when the club opens this fall.”
The news drew praise from many inside golf.
“I think the decision by the Augusta National membership is important to golf,” Tiger Woods said in a statement. “The club continues to demonstrate its commitment to impacting the game in positive ways.”
LPGA Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez, considered by some as a possible first female member, said: “I was hoping it would happen one day. It’s just awesome that it has today.”
Charlotte golf instructor Dana Rader, president of the LPGA teaching and club pro division, said it’s another step forward for the women’s game.
“What I’m most excited about is I think it’s a shot in the arm for women’s golf,” Rader said. “This will open a lot of doors around the country. I don’t think Augusta had to do it. I was OK if they didn’t, but I’m delighted that it happened.”
The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times contributed.