NEW YORK — For the first time in its 80-year history, Augusta National Golf Club has female members.
The home of the Masters, under increasing criticism the last decade because of its all-male membership, invited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore to become the first women in green jackets when the club opens for a new season in October.
Both women accepted.
"This is a joyous occasion," Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said Monday.
The move likely ends a debate that intensified in 2002 when Martha Burk of the National Council of Women's Organizations urged the club to include women among its members. Former club chairman Hootie Johnson stood his ground, even at the cost of losing Masters television sponsors for two years, when he famously said Augusta National might one day have a woman in a green jacket, "but not at the point of a bayonet."
The comment took on a life of its own, becoming either a slogan of the club's resolve not to give in to public pressure or a sign of its sexism, depending on which side of the debate was interpreting it.
Payne, who took over as chairman in 2006 when Johnson retired, said consideration for new members is deliberate and private, and that Rice and Moore were not treated differently from other new members. Even so, he took the rare step of announcing two of the latest members to join because of the historical significance.
"These accomplished women share our passion for the game of golf and both are well known and respected by our membership," Payne said in a statement. "It will be a proud moment when we present Condoleezza and Darla their green jackets when the club opens this fall. This is a significant and positive time in our club's history and, on behalf of our membership, I wanted to take this opportunity to welcome them and all of our new members into the Augusta National family."
Tiger Wood, who knows Rice through a mutual connection to Stanford, applauded the move.
"I think the decision by the Augusta National membership is important to golf," Woods said. "The Club continues to demonstrate its commitment to impacting the game in positive ways. I would like to congratulate both new members, especially my friend Condi Rice."
A person with knowledge of club operations said Rice and Moore first were considered as members five years ago. That would be four years after the 2003 Masters, when Burk's protest in a grass lot down the street from the club attracted only about 30 supporters, and one year after Payne became chairman.
Moore and Johnson are close friends, both with roots in South Carolina and banking, and the person said Payne and Johnson agreed on the timing of a female member. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the club typically does not discuss membership issues, said it was important to Payne to be respectful of the membership process.
The person said prospective members often are not aware they are being considered. Augusta National does not say how much it costs to join or provide figures on annual dues.
Johnson said in a statement to The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., "''This is wonderful news for Augusta National Golf Club and I could not be more pleased. Darla Moore is my good friend, and I know she and Condoleezza Rice will enjoy the Club as much as I have."
Burk maintains her initial letter to Johnson on June 12, 2002 — and his defiant reply — paved the way for Rice and Moore to become members a decade later.
"It came sooner than I expected. I thought they were going to try to outlast me," Burk said. "And I really thought they would wait until the women's movement would get no credit. But if we had not done what we did, this would not have happened now."
Augusta National, which opened in December 1932 and did not have a black member until 1990, is believed to have about 300 members. While the club until now had no female members, women were allowed to play the golf course as guests, including on the Sunday before the Masters week began in April.
The issue of female membership never went away, however, and it resurfaced again this year after Virginia Rometty was appointed chief executive of IBM, one of the Masters' corporate sponsors. The previous four CEOs of Big Blue had all been Augusta National members, leading to speculation that the club would break at least one tradition — membership for the top executive of IBM or a men-only club.
Rometty was seen at the Masters on the final day wearing a pink jacket, not a green one. She was not announced as one of the newest members.
Most players at the Masters steered clear of the issue when it was raised, citing the private nature of the club. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem also tried to stay out of it. In some of his strongest comments in May, he said the Masters was "too important" for the tour not to recognize the tournament as an official part of the schedule.
Finchem commended the club on Monday.
"At a time when women represent one of the fastest growing segments in both playing and following the game of golf, this sends a positive and inclusive message for our sport," Finchem said.
Three-time Masters champion Gary Player tweeted, "Great news. Augusta National admits its first female members in 80 years: Condoleezza Rice & Darla Moore."
"I think it's great," Tim Clark of South Africa said Monday after his runner-up finish in the Wyndham Championship. "Obviously it shows a sign of the times and like I say, Augusta's a place I love, love going there to play and love the tournament. So it's nice to see them do this now and kind of get everyone off their backs."
Moore, 58, first rose to prominence in the 1980s with Chemical Bank, where she became the highest-paid woman in the banking industry. She is vice president of Rainwater, Inc., a private investment company founded by her husband, Richard Rainwater, and she was the first woman to be profiled on the cover of Fortune Magazine,
In 1998, Moore made an initial $25 million contribution to her alma mater, the University of South Carolina, which renamed its business school after her. She pledged an additional $45 million to the school in 2004. And last year, she pledged $5 million to the college for a new aerospace center. She also pledged $10 million to Clemson University in her father's name.
Moore was mentioned as a possible Augusta National member during the height of the all-male membership debate in 2002. She and Johnson worked on South Carolina's $300 million capital campaign in the late 1990s.
"Augusta National has always captured my imagination, and is one of the most magically beautiful places anywhere in the world, as everyone gets to see during the Masters each April," Moore said. "I am fortunate to have many friends who are members at Augusta National, so to be asked to join them as a member represents a very happy and important occasion in my life.
"Above all, Augusta National and the Masters Tournaments have always stood for excellence, and that is what is so important to me."
Rice, 57, was the national security adviser under former President George W. Bush and became secretary of state in his second term. The first black woman to be a Stanford provost in 1993, she now is a professor of political economy at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.
"I have visited Augusta National on several occasions and look forward to playing golf, renewing friendships and forming new ones through this very special opportunity," Rice said in a statement released by the club. "I have long admired the important role Augusta National has played in the traditions and history of golf. I also have an immense respect for the Masters Tournament and its commitment to grow the game of golf, particularly with youth, here in the United States and throughout the world."
Rice recently was appointed to the U.S. Golf Association's nominating committee.
Johnson regarded the membership debate as infringing on the rights of a private club, even though every April it hosts the Masters, the most popular of the four major championships, which brings in millions of dollars through television rights for the highest-rated telecast in golf.
In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press, Johnson the all-male nature of the club was more important because of four parties for members only, instead of who gets to enjoy one of the most famous golf courses in the world.
"Our club has enjoyed a camaraderie and a closeness that's served us well for so long, that it makes it difficult for us to consider change," he said. "A woman may be a member of this club one day, but that is out in the future."
The membership issue might now shift across the Atlantic to the British Open, which returns in 2013 to all-male Muirfield Golf Club.
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Greensboro, N.C., contributed to this report.