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Augusta Surprises Membership With Announcement of First Females

The news that Augusta National Golf Club had invited Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore to join Bill Gates and Warren Buffett as its newest members came as a surprise even to some who already have a green jacket.

The membership wasn’t told in advance of the two women being admitted, according to two longtime members who said they learned about it from the media. They weren’t identified because the club told members not to speak to the press. Existing members are typically notified of new members in a letter after they have been accepted.

The decision by Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National and its annual Masters Tournament, to disclose the newest members in a public statement is a change from the longstanding tradition of not discussing private matters. The club, which opened in 1932 in Augusta, Georgia, has never publicly acknowledged the names of its members.

“We are fortunate to consider many qualified candidates for membership at Augusta National,” Payne said in an e-mailed statement. “Consideration with regard to any candidate is deliberate, held in strict confidence and always takes place over an extended period of time. The process for Condoleezza and Darla was no different.”

The addition of Rice and Moore follows almost a decade of scrutiny of Augusta’s all-male membership. In 2003, William “Hootie” Johnson, the organization’s former chairman, said it wouldn’t admit a woman “at the point of a bayonet,” leading to a protest near the club during the 2003 Masters.

Johnson and Moore are both graduates of the University of South Carolina. Moore, the wife of billionaire investor Richard Rainwater, has donated more than $70 million to the university’s business school, which was named after her in 1998.

Renewed Scrutiny

The club faced renewed scrutiny this year over its lack of female members amid questions about a possible invitation to Ginni Rometty, chief executive officer of International Business Machines Corp.

“This is wonderful news,” Johnson said in a statement to the State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. “I could not be more pleased. Darla Moore is my good friend, and I know she and Condoleezza Rice will enjoy the club as much as I have.”

Rice, 57, is a member of several golf clubs, including Shoal Creek in Alabama and Cypress Point in California.

“I have long admired the important role Augusta National has played in the traditions and history of golf,” Rice said in a statement released by the club. “I also have an immense respect for the Masters tournament and its commitment to grow the game of golf, particularly with youth, here in the United States and throughout the world.”

An avid golfer, Rice served as the honorary chairman for the Regions Tradition, a tournament on the 50-and-over Champions Tour, at Shoal Creek in June. She played in the event’s Pro-Am tournament with Earnie Deavenport, an Augusta National member.

Rice’s Handicap

Rice has a 12.1 handicap, a measure of a golfer’s playing ability, and most recently posted scores of 88, 92 and 89, according to the U.S. Golf Association’s website. There was no handicap listed for Moore, who is a partner at Rainwater, an investment firm.

The two will be presented their members’ green jackets when the club opens this autumn, Payne said in his statement. He was not more specific.

Tiger Woods called the decision “important to golf.”

“The club continues to demonstrate its commitment to impacting the game in positive ways,” Woods said in a statement.

Atlanta Olympics

Business colleagues and close friends who worked with Payne on bringing the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta and running it said the former University of Georgia football player has wanted to add women to the membership since becoming chairman six years ago.

“Certainly during the Olympics, Billy Payne was an advocate for diversity in both hiring and procurement, to a degree that was unusual even for the Olympics,” former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who worked with Payne during the Olympics, said in a telephone interview in April. “He took real risks in those areas.”

Franklin predicted in a 2007 interview that Payne would shake up the club’s old-fashioned image and traditions: “Billy is not a crusty old man,” she said then.

Payne was criticized during this year’s Masters when he touted the club’s initiatives to expand the popularity of golf during a pretournament news conference while refusing to answer questions about excluding women.

Older Members

Cindy Fowler, who has known Payne since 1987 and worked closely with him as a member of his inner circle at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, said Payne’s delay in adding women was probably due to his attempts to please the club’s older members.

Adding women will change the club’s inner dynamics, said Fowler, now CEO of Presenting Atlanta, an event management firm that has organized parties and dinners at Augusta National. She describes Payne as a smart, articulate, driven perfectionist who wants “to do the right thing.”

The club’s male-only culture is underscored by four member tournaments that are held each year. They are stag events, with no wives present, according to club historians.

The “Jamboree” tournament in March, on a weekend shortly before the Masters, is particularly known for its male bonding. A clubhouse dinner is accompanied by skits, story telling and films or videos.

Women’s Tees

Augusta has allowed women to play the course, which doesn’t have a formal set of women’s tees, for decades.

“There is a misnomer that women aren’t allowed,” Kelley Hester, 38, the women’s golf coach at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, said in a telephone interview. As head coach of the University of Georgia women’s team from 2007-12, Hester accompanied the team during annual visits to Augusta.

While at the club, women are permitted to use the private Champions’ locker room and have full access to the grounds, Hester said.

“They were always very welcoming,” she said. “Everyone on the grounds is always treated with respect whether you’re a man or a woman or member or not. They respect good players there, too.”

While many of the world’s top executives have shied away from commenting on the club’s membership, Augusta member Buffett said in May that he would add women if he was in charge.

Buffett’s Opinion

“If I were running the club I’d have plenty of women,” Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said in a May 6 interview with Betty Liu on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop” following his company’s annual meeting in Omaha, Nebraska.

Rometty, who became IBM’s first female CEO in its 100-year history in January, didn’t join Rice and Moore as a new member. Augusta National has historically invited the CEO of IBM to join the club, including the company’s four previous chief executives.

Rometty, 55, has said she does play golf, though only occasionally.

IBM airs TV commercials during Masters broadcasts and has run the website since 1996.

Edward Barbini, a spokesman for Armonk, New York-based IBM, didn’t respond to a call for comment yesterday. The company has previously declined to comment on the issue.

AT&T’s Support

AT&T Inc., another sponsor of the Masters tournament, expressed support for the organization’s decision.

“We applaud today’s historic announcement by Augusta National and warmly welcome Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore as members of Augusta National,” CEO Randall Stephenson said in an e-mailed statement.

U.S. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement that the move “sends a positive and inclusive message for our sport.”

Nine years ago, Martha Burk, then head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, staged a protest near the front entrance of the club founded in 1933 by golf champion Bobby Jones and Wall Street financier Clifford Roberts.

Augusta didn’t have a black member until 1990, when it extended an invitation to Gannett Co. television President Ron Townsend, who still belongs. That move followed the PGA of America’s decision to move its annual championship, the season’s final golf major, from Alabama’s Shoal Creek because of that club’s all-white membership.

The end of Augusta’s all-male membership “is really overdue” and “symbolic about where the South is moving,” said Laura Turner Seydel, daughter of billionaire Ted Turner, founder of the Cable News Network, now part of Time Warner Inc.

“Augusta National was one of those patriarchal strongholds in the U.S.,” Seydel said in an interview at the Rotary Club of Atlanta. “It’s really important that we see this progressive behavior where women have equal rights as men, in the boardroom, as corporate executives and in clubs.”

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