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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Augusta National to Add Condoleezza Rice

Augusta National Golf Club, the private club that hosts the Masters and has come under attack over the past decade for its all-male membership, added two female members Monday: , the former secretary of state, and Darla Moore, a South Carolina businesswoman.

For years, the 80-year-old club's restrictive membership policies, which excluded blacks until 1990, cast it as a remnant of the antediluvian South. Whenever its exclusion of women was held up for public scrutiny, in 2002 and again this year, the club held steadfast to its practices with little concern about repercussions from golf's top players; its network broadcast partner, CBS; the tournament's sponsors; or the PGA Tour, which prevents courses with discriminatory membership policies from hosting its tournaments.

Augusta National conducts business on its own terms, long responding to questions about its policies by saying that it is a private club and that membership issues are a private matter. It remained consistent Monday, releasing a terse statement, which offered no further explanation, at a somewhat surprising time. 

“This is a joyous occasion,” said Billy Payne, the Augusta National chairman, in the club's statement.

For the Hall of Fame golfer Nancy Lopez, it was a momentous occasion.

“It's a big steppingstone for women in golf and for women in general because of what Augusta stands for,” Ms. Lopez said.

For Martha Burk, who began a campaign in 2002 urging Augusta National to admit women, it was an overdue occasion.

“It's about 10 years too late for the boys to come into the 20th century, never mind the 21st century,” Burk said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But it's a milestone for women in business.”

Augusta National's membership policies became a major talking point again this spring because I.B.M., one of three principal sponsors of the Masters, had elevated Virginia Rometty to chief executive. The four previous chief executives of the company had been given club membership.

The lack of an invitation for Ms. Rometty sparked a national discussion during the week of the tournament, with even President Obama and Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, voicing the opinion that the club should open its doors to women. The debate had been fermenting since 2002, when William Johnson, the club chairman at the time, responded to Burk by saying that Augusta National might one day have a female member, “but that timetable will be ours, and not at the point of a bayonet.”

The timing of the announcement seems to be another example of the club's moving at its own pace. This year's Masters, won by Bubba Watson in a playoff, ended April 8, and the club's season does not open until October.

“People have been waiting for this,” said the Hall of Fame golfer Amy Alcott, who has played at Augusta National as a guest. “Nobody functions well with an ultimatum. I said it would happen when people least expect it.”

Even the issuing of a news release to announce the invitations to Ms. Rice and Ms. Moore was something of a surprise.

“I'm not sure they've changed their mind - that they had one position a few months ago and a different one today,” said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports. “Augusta, historically, has operated on its own timetable and most likely felt that the appropriate time to announce it would not be on anybody's time schedule but their own. The fact that the media might be asking in April was one thing, but my guess is that the admission was separate from the tournament so that it would not appear that they were being pressured by the media to make an announcement.”

Women had been allowed to play at the club as guests of its 300-plus members. One does not apply to belong to Augusta National, whose members have included presidents (Dwight Eisenhower), leading businessmen and golf greats like Arnold Palmer. The club's secretive selection process calls to mind the College of Cardinals meeting in conclave to choose a pope. Prospective members are identified by a small committee, and the vetting process can take several years, with those under scrutiny probably unaware they are being sized up for membership.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 20, 2012

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the year Martha Burk began her campaign urging Augusta National to admit female members. It was 2002, not 2003. An earlier version of this article also misstated the month Tim Finchem said the Masters was “too important” to the PGA Tour's interests. It was in May, not April.