Condoleezza Rice blazes another trail

As a key figure on George W. Bush's foreign policy team, Condoleezza Rice was the most powerful woman in a group that called itself the Vulcans. Rice had risen from segregated Birmingham, Ala., to become a leading expert in the 1980s on the former Soviet Union.

Within Washington's arms control bureaucracy, according to James Mann, the author of "The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet," Rice "was usually the only black person, often the only woman and always the only black woman."

In a 2011 interview with CNN's Candy Crowley to discuss "No Higher Honor," her memoir mostly of her time as the national security advisor and secretary of state in the Bush administration, the never-married Rice admitted that her role models had been "old white men."

"I know we sometimes say you had to have role models who look like you, well I don't really believe that," she said. "If I had been looking for a black, female, Soviet specialist role model, I'd still be looking."

In August, Rice and Darla Moore, a 58-year-old South Carolina-born Wall Street titan, became the first two women admitted to the membership of the Augusta National Golf Club, which has hosted the Masters since 1934.

An avid golfer since taking up the game in 2005 during her first year as secretary of state, the 58-year-old Stanford professor now belongs to a club that largely consists of some of the most influential and wealthy "old white men" in the world.

If Rice wants to debate the SALT Treaties over Southern bourbon around the Augusta National clubhouse, she might have an audience with the 74-year-old former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and 92-year-old George Shultz, another former secretary of state. Both veterans of many of the biggest foreign policy discussions of the 1980s are said to be members of the club.

Rice's comfort level in the company of men, particularly powerful white men, is what made her so uniquely appealing to this Augusta cloister that opens to the world for a week every April.

She was the perfect candidate with other important club affiliations. In 2008, she became a member of Shoal Creek in her hometown, where the club founder, Hall Thompson, famously said of his membership policy a couple of months prior to the 1989 PGA Championship, "We don't discriminate in every other area except blacks."

The first time Rice played Shoal Creek, the late founder came out to one of the greens to welcome her to the club.

Throughout a long career of firsts as a black woman in a field dominated by white men, Rice had never been interested in bringing attention to her trailblazing accomplishments. Yet she's aware of the symbolic importance of her advancements.

"I didn't join Shoal Creek as a social statement," she told Golf Digest in 2011. "But I think it's a good statement about how far our country has come, how far Birmingham has come, and sure, every time those barriers come down you're reminded of how hard people had to fight to bring them down."

She most likely would say the same thing of her membership at Augusta, where in 1990 Ron Townsend became the first of several black men to join the club.

In 1954, when Rice was born as the only child of two educator parents, it was inconceivable that a black woman could be in the inner circle of a sitting U.S. president or a member at one of most elite golf clubs in the world.

Back then, the black women who moved within the corridors of the White House and Augusta National worked mostly in menial jobs as cooks and maids. They were almost invisible to the kind of powerful person that Rice would become 50 years later.

Without the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954, which struck down separate but equal doctrine in public schools, a woman of Rice's color would not have been able to access "old white men" as role models to guide her through the complex and incestuous social order of the economic, political and academic elite of mainstream America.

As a member of the nominating committee for the USGA executive board, Rice helped clear the way for Sheila Johnson to become the first black woman elected to the 15-member board in February.

Johnson, a founder of the Black Entertainment Network and a golf resort owner, was a guest of Rice's a few years ago at the Masters. The two women are good friends and have played golf together at Johnson's Innisbrook Resort, near Tampa.

"There's no doubt a barrier has been broken for women of all color," Johnson said of Rice's entry into Augusta National. "People like Condi are helping make golf an inclusionary game, and it's this message I am proud to deliver at all of my golf resorts."

Yet for all of her accolades and accomplishments in Washington, Rice never felt like she was entitled to membership in the all-male enclave at Augusta.

The National Security Council and the State Department are provinces of the federal government, where by law a woman has the right to serve. But she thought the matter of whom Augusta National had on its membership rolls was best left to the club.

"Obviously, I don't believe that you can have racial discrimination," she told Golf Digest. "That is something that is not only illegal, but immoral.

"But there are women-only associations and men-only associations, and these are things that we need to leave to people to sort out."

Martha Burk, who famously demanded the inclusion of women into Augusta National in a 2002 letter to then-club chairman Hootie Johnson, has looked upon this historic event as a victory for the women's movement.

But it's also a triumph more specifically for black women, who, beginning as slaves, have towed a very different path from their white sisters in American history. Though Rice is just one black woman among many who still face daily deprivations as underemployed single mothers, her green jacket represents the hopes and dreams of young black girls who want similar opportunities to fulfill the American dream.

When Masters week begins on April 8 with the first practice rounds, people of all races will walk over the rolling hills first conceived by Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur in the history of the game. Everyone comes to Augusta in April because they want to see the top players on earth on one of golf's most beloved treasures.

Condi Rice will likely be there in her green jacket, alongside some "old white men." She's earned her place in the company of these giants of industry, government and finance.

The black help who did the laundry and cooked the meals for generations at the club now have a woman that looks like them with a seat at the table.

That's progress.