Women at Augusta is change that counts, but it’s only a step

Let us welcome Augusta National to the 21st century.

The golf club has been stuck in a time warp for most of its existence, walled off by its gorgeous azaleas and iron gates barred by the twin sentries of tradition and defiance.

Augusta was never going to let women in “at the point of a bayonet,” declared stomping-mad chairman Hootie Johnson in 2003, when protesters asked the club to update its all-male membership policy.

So Augusta’s leaders took their own sweet time. The goff course in Georgia, home of the Masters tournament, became synonymous with the definition of old boys’ club.

On Monday, Augusta invited two women to join. The lucky ladies are former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore.

Finally, the “No Girls Allowed” sign has been removed from the tree fort.

Is it a victory for women? It’s a step forward, and that is how treks are completed, step by step. Is it a victory for Rice and Moore? No. An unbecoming green jacket is a minor trinket compared to their other accomplishments. As the right-hand woman to President George W. Bush, Rice sat at the negotiating table with world leaders, which was probably a breeze compared to working with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney on a daily basis.

Moore has made millions by taking shrewd risks and making hard-nosed decisions. She now spends as much time on her philanthropic projects as on her business.

She could exchange notes with Bill Gates, who is said to be a member. Or Warren Buffett, T. Boone Pickens, William Clay Ford.

What Augusta National and clubs like it are all about is power, not putts or pars. Who’s who, not who is closest to the pin.

Donald Trump, an avid golfer and owner of country clubs, says the golf course is the ideal place to size up a potential partner, get to know the person behind the suit and tie. How does he react to a good shot? How many mulligans does he take? Trump has cut numerous deals with a driver in his hand.

The significance of Augusta’s decision is not that women get to play golf on an exclusive course, but that they get to use the fairways as corridors of influence, too, and the clubhouse grill as networking hub.

Billy Payne, Augusta chairman, oversaw the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the first “Women’s Olympics,” when U.S. dream teams in basketball, soccer, softball and gymnastics won gold.

In London, we watched the “Women’s Olympics: Part 2.” For the first time, every country was represented by female athletes, including Saudi Arabia, which held out until the last minute but then gave a runner from Los Angeles and a judoka the right to compete.

Had female athletes created their own country, they would have won the medal count.

Women are prime ministers, presidents, senators, Supreme Court justices, astronauts, generals, CEOs. Smug Augusta held fast, until 2012. The club, founded in 1932, did not admit its first black member until 1990.

Augusta’s decision doesn’t affect the right of private clubs to control their membership. The problem with Augusta’s stance was that though it was private by definition, it held a distinctive place in the public consciousness as the site of the Masters, the game’s springtime jewel, which is broadcast on network TV, sponsored by major corporations and viewed by millions of fans. Membership fees were billed as expenses by executives. As the years passed and the chauvinistic good ’ol boys turned into caricatures, it became more and more unseemly to be attached to anachronistic Augusta.

Even Tiger Woods, he of multiracial heritage, spoke up, sort of, when prompted. He didn’t want to lose any endorsements, but he also didn’t want to look like a complete hypocrite (that came later, when his now ex-wife found out how he really regarded women).

The protest against Augusta in 2003, led by Martha Burk of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, turned into a circus. Burk and her supporters were corralled onto a vacant lot a half-mile from the club, where they waved signs and made speeches while play continued uninterrupted on the hushed greens.

Standing there that afternoon, one couldn’t help but feel that the Deep South hadn’t changed much. The womenfolk were relegated to the parlor to exchange frivolous gossip while the men, smoking cigars and sipping whiskey, conducted serious business in the library. Segregation was alive and well — not a surprise, but depressing nonetheless. Confirmation that it’s a white man’s world in America.

Part of the reason for golf’s falling participation rate in recent years is the burdensome perception of it as a game for the rich. It’s expensive and time consuming, even in prosperous times. Many clubs emit an unwelcoming vibe. In Scotland, the birthplace of golf, public courses are abundant and accessible.

Augusta has cracked open its gates — not to women, but to wealthy, successful women. The trickle-down effect can’t hurt, especially for women’s golf in the United States, which is suffering from a lack of American champions on the pro circuit.

Like Saudi Arabia, Augusta National grudgingly gave in. No one is expecting Saudi women to rule the kingdom or win the women’s World Cup. No one is expecting the LPGA at Amen Corner.

Change counts, though. At Augusta, the Spanish moss already looks a lot less like cobwebs.