By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - For 80 years a defiant Augusta National Golf Club had nothing to say about its male-only membership policy.
But on the eve the 2013 Masters, the club's chairman had just one word to describe the decision last August to finally open its doors to women.
"Awesome," Billy Payne said in a disarming southern drawl.
Take a walk up Magnolia Lane, the short road that leads to the Augusta National clubhouse, and it is as if time stands still at one of the world's most famous golf courses.
The breathtaking view is the same as it has been for decades, the home of the Masters golf tournament a bastion of tradition unmoved by outside forces and events.
But this April change is in the air, mixed with the flagrant smell of blooming Azaleas, with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore becoming the first women to don the iconic green jackets.
Despite ending a membership controversy that had reached the White House and became increasingly difficult to simply dismiss as a club matter, Augusta has offered little insight into the timing of their decision and why it took so long.
"It went about the same process and the same amount of time as any other member," Payne told reporters as golfers went through final preparations for Thursday's opening round. "I wouldn't have any comment on that."
As Masters week began Rice was attracting as much attention as the world's top golfers.
Certainly there are good reasons for the gawkers since there have been fewer women to land an Augusta green jacket then men who have landed on the moon.
Augusta's invitation-only membership has been steeped in secrecy since the club opened in 1932.
The club does not reveal its full list of members, believed to be around 300, although it is known that some of the most powerful men from industry and finance, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are members.
Change commonly occurs a glacial pace at Augusta.
It was not until 1990 that Augusta National invited its first black member, businessman Ron Townsend, following accusations of racial discrimination at Alabama's whites-only Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club that was selected to host the PGA Championship, another of golf's four major tournaments.
Prior to Augusta National's ground-breaking announcement last August, women were allowed to play the course only if invited by a member.
Pushed by the National Council of Women's Organizations to admit women, former Augusta chairman William "Hootie" Johnson dug in his heels saying the club would not be forced to open its doors "at the point of a bayonet."
Even though the controversy has been largely defused, it is a subject Augusta National and Masters champions past and present continue to tip-toe around.
Tiger Woods, who steered clear of the debate while it raged, would not be dragged into any reflection on the issue saying only he was happy to welcome Rice, his fellow Stanford University alumni, into the club.
"I think it's fantastic. The club, it was the right timing," said Woods. "For me, knowing Condoleezza over all these years, couldn't have had a better person, and got a chance to see her on Sunday."
Jack Nicklaus, who won the first of his record six green jackets 50 years ago, was more evasive not wanting to rock the boat saying in was not his decision.
"It was not my call," said Nicklaus. "It was the club's call and I think it's great.
"I mean, Condoleezza Rice is a great gal. I don't know Darla Moore, but I'm sure I will.
"And welcome. People that love golf, that's what it's supposed to be for."
Rice was spotted playing a round with Phil Mickelson on Sunday and appeared right at home in the once men only preserve.
The former secretary of state has quickly come to grips with Augusta's informal code of silence policy keeping her thoughts on club matters to herself.
Mickelson also tried to avoid any controversy with the same focus he uses to avoids sand traps.
"I love the game of golf, and I love playing professional golf," said Mickelson. "I love playing different courses. I love being part of different tournaments, organizations.
"What I don't love is getting involved in the politics of it."
In his pre-Masters address, Payne said that Augusta National would continue to be a "beacon in the world of golf and do our best to influence others to want to be part of it".
But in the next moment Payne said Augusta would not use its considerable clout to push other male only institutions like Britain's Royal & Ancient Golf Club to open its membership to women.
"That would be their decision," said Payne. "We have chosen to do what we did and I wouldn't propose to issue an opinion for those other clubs."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)