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It never ceases to amaze me that in 2012 we can still claim a "first" for women, but that's exactly what happened earlier this week when the Augusta National Golf Club suddenly changed its decades-old policy of prohibiting women members.

The lucky first two to receive an invitation to join are former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, a partner with private investment firm Rainwater Inc. (Notably absent was Ginni Rometty, chief executive of IBM, which sponsors the U.S. Masters, which is held at the renowned club.)

The image of golf remains inextricably linked to business, often carrying the connotation of a boy's club, and I doubt that lifting the restriction on female membership at Augusta National will make a dent in that perception. While some applaud the move as progress, the gesture is too little, too late.

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"Private clubs, particularly ones like Augusta National, which hosts large prestigious events like the Masters are where business deals are often conducted. Exclusion of women send the message that they are second-class and not worthy," said Kathryn Kolbert, director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College in New York.

She believes the admission of these two women, whose accomplishments eclipse most of the male members of the club, does not go far enough.

"This tokenism won't change the culture that dismisses women as equal participants in the business world," said Ms. Koblert, who believes real progress at Augusta National will be defined when the club has equal numbers of male and female members.

The role sport plays in women's advancement in business can be a contentious issue and the research on it remains scarce. A 2002 survey of more than 400 senior women business executives conducted by Oppenheimer, a mutual fund company, found that 81 per cent of female executives in the United States played sports during their school years and continue to be physically active.

A 2010 study by Betsey Stevenson, now an economist at Princeton University, found that increased participation in sports among girls resulted in higher college attendance and employment levels. It also led to greater participation in previously male-dominated occupations.

Data aside, many hold the belief that playing or even knowing more about sports leads to additional career opportunities for women.

"Industries like private equity and law are male-dominated industries. Success in those industries is relationship-driven. In order to develop relationships and network, people need to have things in common," said Samantha Horn, a partner at Stikeman Elliott LP in Toronto.

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"One area where this commonality often occurs is in playing or discussing sports."

Ms. Horn hosts an annual golf and networking event; she was spurred by feedback from many women who said they realize that getting out on the links is an important way to network but found that attempting to whack a little white ball next to their male colleagues was intimidating.

"It's a great equalizer in a conversation – most people like to talk sports and it is less controversial than politics," she said.

Several companies specifically target this market of professional women looking to get ahead through sports, such as Toronto-based Corporate Caddy Consulting, which teaches women to improve their golf game and learn how to network on the green.

Lindsay Knowlton, the company's co-founder, grew up playing competitive golf before entering the corporate world, where she often found herself to be the only woman at golf events. The realization that many women felt intimidated by golf inspired her to establish the company, which she believes promotes their career advancement by giving them time with co-workers or clients.

"Where else do you get to spend four hours alone with a client?" asked Ms. Knowlton.

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Lally Rementilla also sees an opportunity for women to advance through sports education. She co-founded the Gal's Got Game website and newsletter, which aims to demystify sports. A better knowledge of sports creates a more level playing field at work, which helps women succeed in their careers, Ms. Rementilla said.

"In a lot of work places, sports talk is prevalent, especially in highly charged environments. Being up-to-date on sports is a great conversation starter," she said.

Does this mean women must learn to talk like one of the guys to gain acceptance? Ms. Rementilla doesn't think so.

"We see this as learning to talk 'with the guys' as opposed to being 'one of the guys'… The Gal's Got Game is not about making women more masculine or being something they are not," she said. "We are about creating new platforms for interaction and adding another common denominator in the work place."

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