Last year the Augusta National Golf Club announced that Condoleeza Rice and Darla Moore had been granted membership of the hallowed institution.
It was the first time in its 80-year history that women had been allowed to join. The club released a terse statement and said no more. Last Wednesday, on the eve of its annual Masters tournament, club chairman Billy Payne spoke to the media about what he termed "the ladies issue". According to reports, he wasn't particularly comfortable talking about said issue. He mightn't be comfortable talking about women's issues in general, one suspects.
Members of the club wear a signature green jacket. Some 25 men in green jackets lined the room where Payne addressed the media last Wednesday. But there was no sign of the women in question. Rice was a national security adviser to US president George W Bush, and later his secretary of state. She was the first black woman to be a provost at Stanford, one of America's most prestigious universities. She is currently professor of political economy at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.
Darla Moore is vice-president of a private investment company. Prior to that she'd become the highest-paid woman in banking and the first woman to feature on the cover of Fortune magazine. The business school at University of South Carolina is named after her. Unfortunately, they were scarcely seen, and certainly not heard, at Augusta last week. Rice was photographed wearing her green jacket at the par-3 tournament on Wednesday. Asked about their whereabouts at the press conference, Payne flannelled his reply. "They are both here this week . . . working as hard as they can to make sure all our guests have an experience that exceeds their highest expectations."
Filip Bondy, of the New York Daily News, was somewhat sceptical in his newspaper report. "Are they selling programs?" he wondered. "Doing the players' laundry?" These high-achieving women had been more or less rendered invisible, presumably for fear they'd focus too much attention on an issue that has been a festering embarrassment at Augusta National for decades.
Billy Payne maintained that their revolutionary decision, announced in August 2012, had made the club "a beacon in the world of golf." Martha Burk didn't see it in quite the same light. A psychologist and academic, Burk had launched a campaign against the club's policy in 2002. "It's about ten years too late for the boys to come into the 20th century," she said, "never mind the 21st century."
It's probably fair to say that progress comes dropping slow at Augusta National. The club had barred African-Americans from membership until 1990. But men are men, whatever the colour. The woman thing is still a minefield for an affluent country club gentleman. The attitude last week was still dripping with condescension. Payne was doing his best but he couldn't quite manage the right tone. "We are all looking forward," he said, "to increasing our relationships with these wonderful ladies." Jack Nicklaus, six-time Masters champion and another Augusta grandee, described Rice as "a great gal". He probably meant well, he's getting on in years, and he presumably never took a course in feminist studies. And Rice, having worked for years alongside George W, has probably heard worse.
But what the forces of political correctness have never appreciated is that the whole "ladies issue" at Augusta never had anything to do with good old-fashioned misogyny. Au contraire. The problem was that the members already had a lady at their club. And they'd been madly in love with her from day one. Admitting any other woman would lead to the most terrible conflict of loyalties.
This lady is the golf course itself. She has been their pride and joy, their one great infatuation. She has been their mistress, their geisha, their courtesan. They even have their pet names, their little terms of endearment, for her 18 golf holes. Tea Olive, Flowering Peach, Yellow Jasmine, Carolina Cherry, Redbud, and so on. It is all rather sweet and charming.
And, unlike these modern women, she is so obligingly passive. She is theirs, and theirs alone. They protect her jealously: they close the course and keep her to themselves for six months of
the year. And then they can do what they please with her. In fact, the members are famous for their obsessive-compulsive primping and preening of their beloved baby doll. No detail is too small. They shower her with jewels and garments.
Divots are filled with green sand. Drinks napkins are the same green as the grass, to camouflage them if they fall. Bunkers are overlaid with white silica sand because they look prettier. During the Masters, 12 mowers move in a line down the fairways to avoid striping. The semi-rough is cut in the opposite direction to provide visual contrast. The vast array of flora is watered laboriously by hand.
And when it comes to showing her off every April, she is beautified into full spectacular plumage. Some people might find it all a trite gaudy. But the members like to have a beautiful woman on their arm when the world is watching. So there she is, waxed and manicured and rouged in all her glory: her shrubbery trimmed, her greens depilated, her perfect body tastefully vajazzled with azaleas.
She will never grow old. Condoleeza and Darla are mere mannequins by comparison. She will always be their kept woman, their abiding queen.