Darla Moore and Condi Rice: changing the game at Augusta

August 21, 2012, 5:30 PM UTC

Darla Moore

Leave it to Darla Moore to shake up a system, shatter a gender barrier and hightail 8000 miles away to duck the spotlight.

“I’m in Nairobi,” Moore said when I reached her on her cell phone Monday morning, after the news broke that she and Condoleezza Rice had become the first female members of Augusta National Golf Club.

When Fortune christened Moore “the Toughest Babe in Business” in 1997, she was a recovering New York banker who had found love and a new career by revamping the investment portfolio of her billionaire husband, Richard Rainwater. “Don’t mess with Darla,” said Rainwater, who let his glamorous other half chop CEO heads and do his dirty work.

Moore went on to make a major mark in philanthropy in her native South Carolina, where she has given more than $70 million to the state university–while tussling with Governor Nikki Haley, who removed her from the school’s board of trustees. Recently, Moore, now 58, has directed time and big money to try to find a cure for progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), the rare brain disease that afflicts Rainwater.

Making history books as a pioneer for women’s equality was not on Moore’s bucket list. Nor is she an avid golfer, though she has known Augusta National chairman Billy Payne and Hootie Johnson, his predecessor, for years. And she has provoked those famously traditional fellows on various matters with her Southern charm. Yesterday in Kenya, while riding through Nairobi from the airport to her hotel, typically press-shy Moore told me she was willing to speak about Augusta if the club allowed her. The club declined and provided her prepared statement that joining Augusta marks “a very happy and important occasion in my life.”

Moore on the cover of Fortune in 1997.

Meanwhile, Rice, whose post-D.C. life in Silicon Valley includes plenty of golf, wasn’t talking to the press either. (Update: Steve Ethun, Augusta National’s director of communications, says that the club imposes no press rules or policy, but there is “an understanding that members don’t talk to the press about membership.”)

Coincidentally, I was at Palo Alto Hills Golf and Country Club yesterday, playing in a tournament, sponsored by KPMG, with two dozen high-powered businesswomen. (Fireman’s Fund CEO Lori Fouché was the longest-ball champ.) The view on Augusta National’s move, from our course? “It needed to happen,” says Lydia Beebe, Chevron’s corporate secretary and chief governance officer. “It’s a long time coming, and it’s fabulous,” added Beebe, who is the only woman on the board of the Olympic Club, America’s oldest athletic club and home of the 2012 U.S. Open men’s golf tournament.

Meanwhile, some of the women I golfed with in Palo Alto asked: Why didn’t Augusta accept Ginni Rometty, the CEO of IBM , which sponsors the Masters and traditionally makes its chief executives club members?

Then answer is pretty simple: That bold move would have signaled to critics that the ultimate old boys’ club was caving to social pressure. Better for 80-year-old Augusta National that Moore and Rice play the pioneers.

And really, it is better for Rometty, IBM’s first female chief who took charge in January, as well. This way, as Beebe says, “She stays above the fray.”

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