Augusta's decision right thing to do

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney weighed in, as did women's golf Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez and Amy Alcott. Activist Martha Burk, understandably, was overjoyed, and Tiger Woods gave a strong endorsement as well.

Augusta National Golf Club, the storied venue that hosts the Masters Tournament and might just be the most famous private golf club in the world, is admitting its first women members, and the reaction is understandably upbeat.

Was that really so hard?

It's easy for an outsider, of course, to tell members of a private club how to do their business, and ultimately, Augusta National had every right to do as it chose in regard to its membership policies.

But when you host one of the four major championships, sit at the same table as golf's governing bodies to mold policy, invite thousands upon thousands of spectators to your beautiful course each spring with millions more watching on television, all the while being at the forefront of grow-the-game initiatives … well, this all-male membership looks bad.

The feeling here has long been that Augusta National simply needed to do the right thing.

Not because it was required by a law (It wasn't). Not because it will all of a sudden mean all kinds of access for women (It won't). Not because this will greatly impact the lives of Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore (they are already highly-decorated women), who were announced Monday by Augusta National chairman Billy Payne as the club's first women members.

Simply, Augusta National is different from other private clubs.

If Pine Valley, Butler National and other golf clubs that don't allow women -- at all -- want to operate that way, it is certainly within their purview. But Augusta National is unique in that it becomes very public, even if for just one week a year.

"This is a joyous occasion,'' Payne said in a release announcing the new members, and he surely means it.

Payne might have put up a good front in recent years, adhering to the club's long-held policy that it would not discuss membership issues and that it had every right to do as it chose in such private matters.

There is no doubt that Payne felt it important to adhere to club tradition and protocol, to follow proper procedure. But it could easily be surmised that deep down, Payne wanted this all along and was simply waiting for the right time, the right place, the right way.

In a previous life, Payne was the head of the Atlanta Olympics. Four years before the Games, before he was a member of Augusta National, Payne was part of a press conference at the club in which it was announced that golf would return to the Olympics -- and at Augusta National. That announcement took place in 1992.

(Just imagine, for a moment, how cool it would have been to see golf at Augusta National as an Olympic sport at a time of year when the club is traditionally closed. Think about the ticket demand, the television possibilities.)

That blew up because of the club's membership policies, and golf was never played in the 1996 Olympics, a fact Payne ruefully acknowledged as those Games were about to close.

"It's clear the biggest thing missing here is golf at Augusta,'' Payne said then. "I'm sorry about that. It's my biggest personal disappointment.''

And this may very well be his biggest personal achievement, even if he never acknowledges it as such.

Ten years ago, when Payne's predecessor, William "Hootie'' Johnson famously told Burk and the world that he would not be pressured to admit a woman member to Augusta National at "the point of bayonet,'' a clear line was drawn in the sand.

While Johnson's rhetoric clearly inflamed the debate, Burk was unaware of exactly whom she was fighting. Johnson went so far as to dismiss Augusta's corporate sponsors for two years so they would not have to endure any public protests. The club simply staged the tournament and spent all the millions of dollars it takes to run it without commercial support.

When Payne took over as chairman in 2006, this issue was clearly not going away. So he remained deferential to Johnson. Even this spring, when it became known that longtime Augusta supporter IBM had a female CEO, Virginia Rometty, and that she had not been granted membership, as per tradition, Payne held his ground.

He was waiting for the right time, the right place, the right way.

The public, for the most part, doesn't care about this fight. Based on attendance and television ratings, few were boycotting the year's first major championship. Most who weigh in on the subject miss the point by bringing up all-female gyms or organizations. Why can't men be part of that?

Again, Augusta National is different. Much different.

Payne has spearheaded efforts to help Augusta use its enormous clout to make a difference in the game. He helped start an amateur event in Asia -- and gives a spot in the Masters to the winner -- to help grow golf there. He started a Masters Tournament Foundation and partnered with EA Sports to produce an Augusta National video game, with proceeds going to the foundation.

But it all appeared a bit disingenuous when women could not be part of club membership. What kind of message did that send?

Now that is no longer an issue. As Woods said, "This decision is important to golf.''

Perhaps it is only symbolic, as most of the world will never get to play golf at Augusta National, or even set foot on its grounds.

But the fact that so many people support and welcome the move suggests it was the right thing to do.