Can Augusta's 'firsts' create change?

We are a culture obsessed with firsts. The rise of Barack Obama from a little-known junior senator from Illinois to the White House in the span of just a couple of years was energized by the appeal of electing the first African-American president.

For years, I would read every week about the first black person to do this or that in Jet magazine, whose editors often called these men and women pioneers and trailblazers.

What I remember most about the space program was that Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, but Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had been the first man in space.

The Elias Sports Bureau could churn out thousands of important firsts in all the major sports.

Now comes the first female members at the fabled Augusta National Golf Club. Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore are accustomed to being first. Rice, a 57-year-old Birmingham, Ala., native, was the first female national security advisor and the first black female secretary of state. Moore, a 58-year-old from South Carolina, was one of the first women to make a big name in helping companies out of bankruptcy during a legendary career at Chemical Bank.

Augusta National orchestrated these pioneering firsts, more than 20 years after making Ron Townsend, a now-retired Gannett executive, the first black member in the club.

At the time of Townsend's admittance to Augusta National, the late Hord Hardin, who was then the chairman of club, released the following statement:

"We concluded at least a year ago that there were more black people playing golf, more black people climbing the business ladder, more climbing the scientific and educational ladders, and we realized that there were people in that group who would enjoy being with the people we have as members."

By black people, Hardin meant black men. Augusta National was a men's club, and for the moment its inclusiveness only extended to those in the fraternity.

Women would have to wait their turn, no matter how well they fit the bill. Yet the club had history on its side.

In the immediate years following the Civil War, the leadership within the women's suffrage movement and the newly freed slaves battled over who would first get the right to vote.

"I would sooner cut off my right hand than ask the ballot for the black man and not for the woman," said Susan B. Anthony, one of history's most prominent proponents of women's suffrage.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglas had a different take.

"[The woman] is the victim of abuses, to be sure," he said, "but it cannot be pretended I think that her cause is as urgent as … ours."

Black men got the right to vote with the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870, 50 years before the 19th Amendment gave women that same privilege.

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson made Thurgood Marshall the first black Supreme Court justice, 14 years before Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the court.

At the start of the 2008 Democratic party primaries, much of the country was ready to make Hillary Clinton the first female president, but by the end of that summer, the party had decided on another important first. With a gift for oratory, Obama promised that he would try to bring something new to Washington. He would be the kind of pioneer who would shake things up around the Beltway. While Obama feels a great sense of pride as the first black president, he never wanted that fact to be the defining achievement of his administration.

The responsibilities of a private club member are very different from those of the leader of the free world, but Augusta National isn't just any club. As firsts in a club that they probably won't visit more than a few times a year, the presence of Rice and Moore might be little more than an empty symbol of change. In their world of mostly high-powered men, they aren't likely to bring a lot of foursomes of women to the club or make demands for more female members.

Over the course of their careers, these two women might not have been privy to the interior world of men who gawk at interns and talk about it around the grill room. But they have nonetheless maneuvered through the boy's clubs that made decisions that mattered most to the kind of high-powered men that Hardin and the club's founders, Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones, wanted associated with Augusta National.

Since Townsend joined Augusta National in 1990, several other black men now don the membership's iconic green jacket. You can see a handful of them quietly going about their committee duties during the Masters each April.

That's a good thing if you measure progress in the sport by the number of minority members in private clubs. I would much rather have Augusta National spend some of its millions on revitalizing economically depressed areas near the club than simply adding women to reach its diversity goals.

In time, the women's membership at Augusta National might grow to a half dozen or more,
and have a presence at the tournament that shows their membership was more than just symbolic.

But the onus doesn't fall exclusively on the club to make the acceptance of women more than merely a first to add to some tally of achievements for women and minorities in the game. Rice and Moore should encourage the club to bring a women's event to the course, and spearhead efforts to elevate women in the sport around the world with the same ferocity that it has tried to promote golf in Asia.

It's not out of bounds to ask Rice and Moore to carry the burden of representing the interests of women at the club, especially when they have been added to the membership primarily on the basis of their gender.

Yet if they were the meddlesome type, the club probably would never have considered them.

Certainly, Rice and Moore know how to tactfully navigate around those manicured grounds, but hopefully they will grow proudly into those green jackets and become something more than just the first female members at Augusta National.