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Change comes slowly at Augusta National. Study the 80-year history of the golf course, and you'll find dramatic finishes at the Masters tournament, but not all that much else. Occasionally, the club adds a couple of sand traps, but they don't lightly change the azaleas, the sense of tradition or the exclusive private club membership: not until now has the club admitted women members. A South Carolina banker and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice become the first. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: For decades, Augusta National has been called a boy's club, its famous green jackets donned only by its all-male members. A decade ago, Martha Burk, with the National Council of Women's Organizations, made the subject a national issue.
MARTHA BURK: Discrimination against women is wrong, and this is a very high-profile venue for discrimination against women.
LOHR: But back then, the chair of Augusta National, Hootie Johnson, said members would not be bullied, threatened or intimidated. He said women might be invited to join one day, but not at the point of a bayonet.
HOOTIE JOHNSON: If I drop dead, our position will not change on this issue. It's not my issue alone. And I promise you what I'm saying, is if I drop dead this second, our position will not change.
LOHR: A 2003 demonstration in Augusta drew only a couple of dozen of protestors. And three years later, a younger chairman, Billy Payne, took over. He helped bring the Olympics to Atlanta. But the pressure to admit women remained high, and Payne declined to talk about the issue many times, including earlier this year just before the prestigious Masters tournament in April.
BILLY PAYNE: All issues of membership are now and have been historically subject to the private deliberations of members, and that statement remains accurate and it remains my statement.
LOHR: But four months later, Payne announced the admission of the club's first two women, saying it's a significant and positive time in the club's history. He called it a, quote, "joyous occasion," but didn't say why they made the change now.
The first two female members are former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, now a professor at Stanford University, and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore. Moore was the first woman to make the cover of Fortune magazine and is vice president of a private investment company. Augusta National opened in 1932, and did not have a black member until 1990. Women were not allowed to be members, and could only play golf as guests.
DEBORAH FRETT: My first reaction is: It's about time.
LOHR: Deborah Frett is CEO of the Business and Professional Women's Foundation, and supported the protests at Augusta a decade ago.
FRETT: It was never really about golf. It's always been about power and keeping women out of the halls of power and away from where decisions, you know, business decisions are made. So, you know, because, I mean, we all know that corporate leaders can publicly participate in activities that keep women out, that that becomes an issue and it makes a public statement about a not-so-level playing field and then, you know, and the value of women workers.
LOHR: IBM has been a long-time supporter of the Master's tournament, and the past four CEOs of the company were invited to join. The latest IBM president is a woman, Virginia Rometty, and some felt that would help persuade Augusta National to begin inviting women. But so far, Rometty, who doesn't golf much, has not been offered a membership. IBM did not return calls seeking comment. Augusta National officials say they plan to present both of their new women members with the club's famous green jacket this fall.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.