July 21, 2009

Next Year's Fashion At Augusta?

The club continues to evolve, and, inevitably, so will its membership

Now is when Augusta National traditionally does its best work, as the course lies fallow and the brain trust reflects on the last Masters.

Of course, the Vatican's conclave of cardinals leaves more clues about what gets discussed. But I'm guessing that one topic of discussion for the green jackets will be the implications of the midweek cameo by Condoleezza Rice, who not only made herself more visible at the club than any political figure since President Eisenhower, but then blogged about it for a cheeky website, The Daily Beast.

With power brokers, little happens by accident. The ex-Secretary of State's first trip to Augusta seemed designed to further establish her sports-maven persona, including a presentation to NFL owners and turning down the Pac-10 Conference commissionership. As for Augusta National, having a member escorting an African-American woman around the grounds didn't do the club's image any harm.

I think something bigger was going on, namely the first public hints since the end of Hootie Johnson's reign that the ultimate men's club is seriously considering bringing in its first female member.

Billy Payne is more attuned to the issue than any of his forerunners.'

There might be groaning by those who hoped that possibility died in 2003 after Martha Burk's protest, but the issue is too significant to go away. The more golf emerges from its cultural vacuum, the more Augusta National is held accountable for the way it represents the game.

The club has plenty of legal cover to resist such a role. There is Augusta's constitutional right as a private club to remain all-male, as well as its exemption -- because it owns and operates the Masters -- from the PGA Tour's Shoal Creek-triggered regulation that prohibits co-sponsored events from being played at clubs that discriminate on the basis of race or gender. Nor has the view that the club is required to be inclusive because it hosts and profits from a public event gained any real traction.

But Augusta's moral authority on the issue has diminished since Johnson's "point of a bayonet" response to a relatively innocuous letter by Burk got him into the Overreaction Hall of Fame. Complicit is the tour, whose anti-discrimination policy lost credibility with its eagerness to give the Masters a pass. And though Burk's campaign was judged a failure at the time, since then she has played a role in settlements totaling nearly $80 million on behalf of women who work for companies whose executives belong to Augusta National.

In that context, the club's generous contributions to gender-equitable, grow-the-game initiatives like The First Tee and golf in the Olympics can appear hypocritical. The fact remains that women, who make up less than 20 percent of all golfers, perennially drop out of the game at more than double the rate of men.

Chairman Billy Payne is more attuned to the issue than any of his forerunners. It was Payne who got the club to offer itself as the venue for golf in the Atlanta Olympics, only to see the idea fall through because of the club's lack of a female member. Although Payne is probably eager to turn the page on admitting women, he knows that doing so too quickly could be seen as disrespectful to the legacy of Johnson, especially since some longtime Augusta watchers insist Johnson would have brought in a woman if Burk hadn't triggered his obstinate side.

But where Hootie and Martha produced gridlock, Billy and Condi could break it. In her blog, Rice's line that "Clearly, the faces of Augusta are changing as America is changing" seemed farcically diplomatic, unless she knows something we don't. But when she singled out Fuzzy Zoeller as "another favorite of mine,"she came off as a potential healer.

So, could Rice become Augusta's first woman? She and Payne declined to be interviewed on the subject, but she's an avid golfer, a Republican stalwart and African-American. What argues against her is that she has been out front, the last place Augusta likes its candidates for membership.

But the acceptance of the first female member at Augusta transcends all traditions. When it happens, it won't seem surreal. It will simply be about time.