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Column: British now on clock in men-only debate

Monday - 8/20/2012, 7:59pm  ET

By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP National Writer

ATLANTA (AP) - Let's all welcome Augusta National to the 21st century.

And don't stop there.

Hey, British Open, you're on the clock now.

The home of the Masters is opening its doors to women members, a move so momentous they actually acknowledged it happened. You see, the gentlemen in green _ and I guess we'll have to start saying the ladies in green, too _ normally spend about as much time talking about the inner workings of their club as they do about the zillions of dollars they rake in every year on golf's first major championship.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore were invited to join what was once the nation's most exclusive fraternity. While no keg party was planned, club chairman Billy Payne did release a statement Monday calling it a "joyous occasion," which of course raised the question:

What took `em so long?

"It's about (expletive) time," said Alison Piepmeier, director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. "We have come so far in terms of just basic equality. To still have a major sports institution that thought it was appropriate and acceptable to exclude women was just anachronistic. It was ridiculous. I'm glad they finally decided that was the case."

There's more work to be done.

On the other side of the Atlantic, where this quirky little game actually started and the sport's oldest major championship is held every summer, they've got their own gender issues.

The next British Open will be at Muirfield, which is men only. The resistance to women is epitomized by a tale passed down through the years _ who knows if it's actually true or not _ that there was once a break-in at the clubhouse, but they wouldn't let the police inside because a female officer showed up to investigate.

Chuckle, chuckle.

Only one problem.

This is no laughing matter.

Not anymore.

It's been a decade since Martha Burk first brought up the issue of male-only membership at Augusta National (though, admittedly, her efforts were received largely with a collective yawn and a pithy quote from former chairman Hootie Johnson). But at least the club took this landmark step before we marked an entire century of women having the right to vote in this country.

Now, finally, women also have the right to wear one of the world's most hideous fashion statements.

More important, they've gained a tee time as full-fledged members at perhaps the most prominent old boy's club in the world.

"It's a milestone for women in business," a giddy Burk said Monday. "This is, after all, the Fortune 500. It is the titans of business that are members of the club. The example they give affects what people accept as normal, and it affects what people accept as right."

For some reason, the fight for gender equality in golf has never been viewed with the same urgency as the quest for racial equity. Augusta National quietly added African-American members way back in 1990, shortly after someone noticed the PGA Championship was being held at a club (Shoal Creek in Alabama) that didn't allow blacks, setting off a justifiable firestorm of protests.

Having never paid much attention to the racial issue before, the powers-that-be suddenly reacted with what might be described as self-serving outrage. Sincere or not, it was decreed that no club with discriminatory membership policies could host a tournament. Shoal Creek didn't get another nationally recognized event _ the 2008 U.S. Junior Amateur _ until it let in blacks and other minorities as members.

But when Burk pointed out that hallowed venues such as Augusta National didn't have any female members, there was no rush to judgment from the PGA Tour or the U.S. Golf Association. There were a handful of vocal critics in the media, but the male-dominated industry largely stayed quiet, as though it was hoping the whole thing would just go away. When Burk held a rally during the 2003 Masters, only about 30 supporters showed up.

No one, it seemed, gave a hoot about a man named Hootie saying his club might admit women someday, "but not at the point of a bayonet."

A personal aside is in order: For some reason, the ire I felt over Shoal Creek never rose to the same level with Burk's cause. I remember asking myself why, and couldn't really provide an answer. Maybe I had just become so conditioned to looking at the world through male-colored glasses that I couldn't see the harm it was doing.

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