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Condoleezza Rice drives into history as Augusta finally lets women join

By Rupert Cornwell

She was the first woman to become the President's national security adviser, and only the second to serve as Secretary of State. Now Condoleezza Rice has broken perhaps the toughest gender barrier of all – she has been named a member of Augusta National Golf Club, the tradition-encrusted home of the US Masters championship and a defiantly all-male redoubt since it opened for business 80 years ago.

That last bastion fell yesterday with the announcement by Augusta's chairman, Billy Payne, that Ms Rice, along with the prominent South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore, would be joining the club, making them the first women entitled to wear the famous members' green jacket presented every April to the winner of the Masters, one of golf's four majors.

The parties to the breakthrough could not have sounded happier. Mr Payne spoke of "a joyous occasion" and "a significant and positive time" in the history of the club, while Ms Rice said she was "delighted and honoured" to join a club that until 1990 did not have a single black member.

After more than a decade of pressure, there was scant doubt that sooner or later Augusta would yield to the tides of modernity and go "co-ed". The move may even have been a tacit condition of golf's reinstatement as an Olympic sport for the Rio Games in 2016.

But the moment itself was of the club's choosing – in keeping with the dictum of its previous chairman, William "Hootie" Johnson, that Augusta was a private club that could operate the membership policy it pleased, and that would not change its ways "at the point of a bayonet".

The remark came during a famous row in 2002 between Mr Johnson and Martha Burk, the then head of the National Council of Women's Organisations, who accused Augusta of sexism. The controversy surfaced again earlier this year, with speculation that the club was about to admit Virginia Rometty, the new head of IBM, a top Masters sponsor whose chief executive is traditionally is a member. However Mr Payne refused to be drawn on the issue and in the event Ms Rometty did not become a member of the club.

Ms Rice is a sports enthusiast. She took up golf in 2005 and plays up to three times a week. Her style is "very aggressive," Ms Rice admitted in an interview last year with Golf Digest, speaking of her "inner Phil Mickelson" (a reference to the PGA tour star who rarely avoids a risky shot). "I'm fairly long," she told the magazine, "but a little wild with my driver. [But] I'm a very good putter."

Augusta is believed to have about 300 members, many of them CEOs, but a full list has never been published. Although it has never had female members, women were permitted to play the course as guests and to dine at its restaurant.

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