Augusta Makes the Inevitable Decision

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At its core, golf is one of the clearest and fairest of sports. Each swing counts a stroke. No umpire is needed as in baseball, no referee as in football.

The problem wasn't the game but rather the surroundings, the bigotry, the exclusion at certain courses because of race or religion. Or, as at Augusta National, gender.

Women had not been allowed to join. Until now. Until the head of Augusta National, Billy Payne, announced Monday that the club would accept two women: the former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and financier Darla Moore.

It was a day when inevitability triumphed, a day when equality succeeded, a day when Payne could stop listening to the grumbling of those for whom the issue of Augusta National had become bigger than anything in golf.

Women were going to be members for certain. But when?

It was not going to be our decision. It was going to be theirs. And now it has been made, Augusta extending memberships to women for the first time in its 80 years.

Prominent, successful women, both of whom are golfers because more than anything Augusta is about golf.

"Oh, my God,'' Martha Burk, the woman who attempted the failed Masters boycott to force Augusta to bring in females, told the Associated Press. "We won."

In actuality, golf won. Sport won. Reason won. Humanity won. And perhaps most of all, Augusta National, where each April the Masters bursts forth in all its glory under the tall Georgia pines, won.

No longer will the Wednesday before the tournament be a confrontation between journalists and Payne, who reminded that the membership question was "historically private."

It became particularly nasty at this year's Masters because Virginia Rometty had just become the first woman CEO of IBM, and in the past the CEO of IBM always had been invited to join Augusta.

The probers wouldn't back off, tossing barbs and questions, even wondering how Payne, chairman of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, would explain to his granddaughters about leading a club with no women members.

"Well,'' responded Payne, "my conversations with my granddaughters are personal."

The thought expressed here was that Rice, a professor at Stanford and once mentioned as a candidate to be commissioner of the NFL, would be the natural choice as the pioneer. Along with Moore, Rice was exactly that.

Rice plays the game with a passion, knows many club members - not to mention the world community - and as an African-American provides Augusta with ever more diversity.

Moore in the 1980s became the highest-paid woman in the banking industry and was the first woman profiled on the cover of Fortune magazine. She made an initial $25 million contribution to her alma mater, the University of South Carolina - an hour's drive from Augusta, not that it matters.

The school is also the alma mater of Hootie Johnson, who as Payne's predecessor was rigid in opposing outsiders who demanded he and Augusta change their membership policy. If that doesn't matter, then it's delightfully ironic.

"It's nice to see them do this,'' said Tim Clark, the South African pro who won The Players Championship in 2008, "and get everyone off their backs."

From its founding, change has been a constant at Augusta. The course has been altered from year to year, a tee extended, a bunker added. Tournament invitation regulations have been altered occasionally, Masters eligibility revised now and then.

Did they remake the methods of qualifying back in the 1970s to bring in an African-American or to keep out an African-American? You heard both arguments.

Lee Elder finally broke through in 1975, the first black American to qualify. The previous year, at a dinner in New York, he literally was embraced by Cliff Roberts, the late Augusta National chairman who supposedly once said no black ever would be in the tournament or on the membership rolls.

Through the complaints - Lee Trevino said he felt so unwanted one Masters he changed his shoes in the parking lot, not the clubhouse - the debates and the disenchantment, Augusta continued to put on an event that had fans (known as patrons) begging for tickets and golfers virtually doing the same for a place in the field.

"Above all,'' said Rice, "Augusta National and the Masters tournaments have always stood for excellence, and that is what is so important to me."

That, from the way mowers trim the fairways, to the new practice area, to the fountains where bronze plaques recall history, to the way spectators and golfers are treated, has always been important to Augusta National.

"This is a joyous occasion,'' said Payne about the admittance of Rice and Moore.

For Augusta National. For the Masters. For golf.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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