Rice’s Augusta membership sign of the political times

Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore are the first women to join the Augusta National Golf Club, as the home of the Masters has ended its controversial policy on female members. But there is also a considerable political back story to the news.

Rice, the former secretary of state, and Moore, a financial executive from South Carolina, were offered memberships on Monday. Both accepted, to end an 80-year-old ban of women members at Augusta.

“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,” said Moore, who is well-connected politically and a legend in her state.

Rice also issued a statement about her excitement about joining the country club.

“I am delighted and honored to be a member of Augusta National Golf Club,” Rice said. “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.”

The annual controversy over Augusta’s exclusionary policy spilled over into the early part of the 2012 presidential campaign, after President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney said they would admit women to Augusta, if they were in a position to do so.

In April, Romney said during a Pennsylvania campaign stop that he had no issues admitting women to Augusta.

“Certainly if I were a member, if I could run Augusta, which isn’t likely to happen, of course I’d have women into Augusta,” Romney said.

President Obama issued a statement on the same day supporting women members for Augusta.

In response to criticisms over its policies, the club has always said its membership selection process was private.

And as a “truly” private club, Augusta had the ability to exclude women from membership under the legal concept of the freedom of association.

In a 2005 handbook for club operators posted online, the Club Managers Association of America defines a truly private club as one with very limited, small membership, with a selective approval process.

“The United States Supreme Court on numerous occasions has said that the founding fathers intended to protect only the association of small, closely-knit social groups … not any group or entity that holds itself out to be ‘private,’” the guide says.

“If the association of individuals is a closely-knit social group, they should be quite selective in who they permit to join the group. If, however, the facts show that the club hardly ever declines applicants for membership or solicits new members in some fashion, the club will have a difficult time in court,” the handbook summarizes.

Freedom of association isn’t directly stated in the First Amendment, but it is based on legal precedents, including several high-profile Supreme Court rulings, that tie the right of freedom to associate privately to freedom of speech issues.

Augusta was under additional pressure since the chief executive of IBM is now a woman, Virginia Rometty.

The CEO of IBM has always been offered membership in the club and IBM is a Masters sponsor.

In the past, the club wouldn’t comment on the Rometty issue.

But on Monday, Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne said Rice and Moore went through the same vigorous, private application process as other members.

“We are fortunate to consider many qualified candidates for membership at Augusta National. Consideration with regard to any candidate is deliberate, held in strict confidence and always takes place over an extended period of time. The process for Condoleezza and Darla was no different,” Payne said.

Augusta is believed to have about 300 members. It admitted its first black member in 1990.

And while many Americans are aware of Rice as a trailblazer, Moore was one of the first women to break through the glass ceiling as a banking executive in the 1980s.

Moore also has a series of interesting connections to the Republican party. She is married to financier Richard Rainwater, who was a co-owner of the Texas Rangers with George W. Bush.

Moore is also a philanthropist who gave an estimated $75 million to the University of South Carolina, according to The Wall Street Journal,  and she had served on its board until she was removed by the current governor, Nikki Haley.

The issues between Haley, a Tea Party supporter, and Moore made headlines for months in South Carolina.

And in a 1997 Fortune magazine profile, Moore is portrayed as tough businesswoman who had just won a tough battle over the health care company Columbia/HCA against her husband’s former business partner, Rick Scott. He is now the governor of Florida.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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