Billy Payne improved August National today.
By accepting Condi Rice and Darla Moore, he made a move in keeping with the club's traditions. He admitted two people who love golf and who are prominent in their fields and who are well known and well liked by the membership. There's nothing exceptional about that. The club admits new members every fall.
But Billy parted with tradition here in two ways. First, for a club that always says membership practices are a private matter, he announced the two new members by way of press release. And the only reason he did that was because the two new members are women.
He did not, notably, admit Ginny Rometty, the IBM CEO, to the club (or if he did, he didn't announce it). Some have said that a perk of that job at IBM has traditionally included a membership at Augusta. But Rometty is not a keen or enthusiastic golfer. It would have been appallingly political to see her get in, in this first class of women at Augusta National.
This news will be a hot button issue for all sorts of people across the political spectrum. It shouldn't be. No one is saying that a private club cannot choose to be single sex. In his press release, Payne did not even address the idea that the women are the first known female members at Augusta National. There are reasons why some clubs choose to remain single sex. My wife and I, for instance, both belong to single sex clubs and are comfortable with it.
But Augusta National is a special case. It is a club that, among other things, seeks to promote the virtues of the game across the country and the world. What kind of message does it send when this particular club, private by charter but public by perception, excludes half the world's population from membership consideration?
(Related Article: Condoleezza Rice's interview from the October 2010 issue of Golf Magazine)
People will say that the club was shamed into this move by a radical media with an agenda. This is laughable. The truth is, the world changes incrementally every day, and the role of women in society has been evolving over the course of the last million years. This should have happened a long, long time ago. In any event, a press release was posted today because a tipping point was reached.
And that tipping point is not necessarily rooted in equality. There were massive political considerations at stake here. For the prominent CEOs who are Augusta National members, it could not have been comfortable to proudly say, in a room full of feminists, "I'm a member of all-male August National and damn proud of it!" No.
Payne could not realistically risk having a club where people he wanted did not feel comfortable joining because of the membership policies. His authority as chairman was already diminished when fellow member Warren Buffett said last spring that women should be admitted as members. And when Master's champion Bubba Watson made the same point, it had to become even more obvious to Payne that this was the right thing to do. Bubba speaks truth to power.
Let's not, not even for a minute, pretend that Billy Payne is Branch Rickey or that Condi and Darla, as Payne refers to them in his press release, are modern-day Jackie Robinsons. Branch Rickey was trying to field a winning Brooklyn Dodgers team and, along the way, trying to right a historic wrong. There's nothing historic about an elite private club admitting two women of tremendous privilege.
But here's the great thing. We're not going to have to talk about this ridiculous issue anymore, at least as it relates to Augusta National. The club is going to find that Darla and Condi fit right in when they show up at the annual member-member tournament, the Jamboree. Yes, the club is going to have to find a new tailor and make some accommodations in its storied clubhouse for the new female members.
And, yes, the oldest of the old guard, dying or already dead, will think the world has gone to hell in a hand basket because of this simple act. That's proof of how important these admissions are. For decades, decades after Jackie Robinson, Augusta National had no black members. Then they were shamed into admitting black members. And now, 20 years later, anyone who visits Augusta National doesn't think twice to see a black man in a green coat. Next April, when we see two women in club coats, it'll cause a little bit of a double-take. But the guess here is that by 2014, you won't even notice, and we'll all start to focus on some new thing.
By the way, does Augusta National have any Hispanic members?