AUGUSTA, Ga. – Something strange was going on Sunday morning at Augusta National Golf Club. Female golfers had taken over the place.
There were male golfers, too, but that wasn't the story. Not at this club, not on this day. Forty-four girls ages 7 to 15 had arrived to compete in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, with four of them being crowned winners in their age divisions.
They received something that would have been unthinkable even two years ago at Augusta: Equal treatment. Four girls champions. Four boys champions. Equal billing on the press release. The event logo featured the silhouettes of what appeared to be one girl and two boys – one driving, chipping and putting – but who really could quibble with that? (Maybe one is a girl with short hair?)
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Media coverage appeared to favor the girls more than the boys, if only because of the venue, which as recently as two years ago was criticized as one of the most egregious bastions of sexist behavior remaining in the wide world of sports.
No more. Augusta National as a champion for women in golf? Amazing, but true.
Change might take its sweet time at Augusta, but when it comes, it comes quickly.
It was two years ago this week that Augusta National Golf Club breathed some of its last breaths as the place that was trying so hard to exclude women from its ranks.
Chairman Billy Payne spent a significant amount of time in his annual Masters news conference that year speaking eloquently about the lack of growth in golf. The numbers are staggering: the game is believed to be losing as many as a million participants a year.
In his 2012 comments, he mentioned junior and international programs that the club champions, and even the creation of a video game.
"Impressive efforts, I hope, but not enough," he said. "We can do better."
Then came the questions from reporters, and there were a lot of them, and many sounded like this:
"Mr. Chairman, I note your concerns about the growth of golf around the world, and I also note that Augusta National is a very famous golf club. Don't you think it would send a wonderful message to young girls around the world if they knew that one day they could join this very famous golf club?"
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Then came Payne's answers, which sounded like this: "That deals with a membership issue, and I'm not going to answer it."
It was not good. Payne, the man who ran the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the Games known as the "Women's Olympics," was twisting himself into a pretzel trying to explain how a club that didn't have any women members could somehow lead the way in welcoming new people (women, especially) to the game of golf.
It was an untenable situation that simply couldn't last much longer.
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It didn't. Four-and-a-half months later, the club announced that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore had become its first female members. At last year's tournament, Rice especially was an omnipresent force, greeting players and fans throughout the week, becoming the face of the club's membership almost overnight.
And now, here were all those girls, driving, chipping and putting on Augusta's venerable grounds, right there with the boys. The event was conducted by the Masters, the PGA of America and the U.S. Golf Association, but where it was held, and when (four days before the start of the 2014 Masters), spoke volumes.
Whatever the reason – altruism, capitalism or just plain survival of the game – as Augusta goes, so goes the golf industry. Women and girls are a largely untapped demographic in a sport that is desperate for new participants. Bottom line: you can't discriminate against them anymore if you want to grow the game of golf.
"The game has a significant legacy of exclusion and elitism that we must confront," USGA president Thomas J. O'Toole said at the USGA's annual meeting in February, according to Golf World. "Frankly, the game is just not welcoming." He specifically mentioned women and minorities.
In little more than two months, the USGA will host the 2014 U.S. Open in Pinehurst, N.C. That's the men's national championship. The very next week, it will host the U.S. Women's Open on the same golf course.
That's a first.
There seems to be a lot of that going around these days.