Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson stood his ground for many years about changing admission to the golf club. (Jeff Hayned / AFP / Getty Images)
Hootie Johnson, the South Carolina banker and Augusta National chairman who stubbornly stood his ground amid pressure for the club to invite female members, died Friday morning. He was 86.
Augusta National announced his death and celebrated the sweeping changes to the Masters during his eight years as chairman. But it was his battle with Martha Burk and her National Council of Women’s Organizations that defined his legacy at the Masters.
Burk wrote to Johnson in 2002 and urged Augusta National to invite female members so that it wouldn’t become an issue at the Masters.
In a blistering, three-page statement to reporters, Johnson said women might one day be invited, but it would be on the club’s timetable and “not at the point of a bayonet.” That became a symbol of his resolve as Johnson and Augusta National dug in deep against relentless media pressure.
He went so far as to drop the Masters’ television sponsors — IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup — to keep them out of the fray. That led to the first commercial-free broadcast of a sporting event on network television.
Johnson stepped down as chairman in 2006 and was succeeded by Billy Payne, who ran the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Augusta National, which opened in 1931 and did not have its first black member until 1990, invited two women to join in 2012. One was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The other was South Carolina financier Darla Moore, whom Johnson nominated.
Burk, who currently is working on gender-equity salary projects, said Johnson “personified the thinking of dinosaurs.”
“What I have to say, and I thought this for years, is it’s really a shame that he engaged in the Augusta controversy the way he did,” Burk said. “But I think history will remember him as the Lester Maddox of golf. And I think that’s unfortunate.”
Maddox, a segregationist and former governor of Georgia, was known for violating the Civil Rights Act by refusing to serve black customers in his Atlanta restaurant.
Johnson’s public image clashed with his legacy in business, where he was among the most progressive bankers in the South.
He was born William Woodward Johnson on Feb. 16, 1931, and a childhood friend gave him the nickname “Hootie” when he was 5. Johnson was a second-team fullback for South Carolina in the 1950s and became the youngest bank president in South Carolina in 1965 at Bankers Trust of South Carolina.
Johnson was a key figure in integrating higher education in South Carolina in 1968, getting the state to pay for an undergraduate business program at South Carolina State, which then was attended only by blacks.
“It’s about nothing more or less than doing the right thing,” Johnson told Golf Digest in a 2000 interview. “It was the most satisfying public service work I’ve ever done.”
He later invited South Carolina State president M. Maceo Nance to serve on the board at Bankers Trust, the first black man appointed to a bank board in the state.
Johnson was invited to join Augusta National in 1968, and he was close with co-founder Clifford Roberts because of their banking interests.
Before the protest over the male-only membership at Augusta National, Johnson was behind significant changes at the Masters. All but four of the holes were strengthened during his tenure, stretching the course from 6,985 yards to 7,445 yards.
The changes were criticized initially, though Johnson showed his foresight for the modern game of power. Tiger Woods set the scoring record of 270 in 1997. Jordan Spieth matched it in 2015.
Under Johnson, Augusta National was among the first golf organizations that relied on the world ranking as criteria for a major. He introduced a second cut of rough at the Masters. Television coverage was expanded to five hours on the weekend, allowing for all 18 holes to be shown.
“During his eight-year tenure, we always admired his genuine and unrelenting respect for the traditions and vision of the club and tournament established by our founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts,” Payne said in a statement. “He boldly directed numerous course improvements to ensure that Augusta National would always represent the very finest test of golf.”
Payne also noted that Johnson re-opened the waiting list for tickets for the first time in more than 20 years.
He called Johnson his personal mentor on matters at Augusta National, business and in life. It was that camaraderie at Augusta National to which Johnson clung during his stand against Burk’s insistence on female members.
He never backed down, all the way until Burk and about 40 protesters met in the rain in a 5-acre lot down the street from the Masters in 2003. Television sponsors returned in 2005. “We will prevail because we’re right,” Johnson said in a November 2002 interview with the AP.
“I seldom have any regrets. I don’t look back much,” he said that day. “I regret that she threatened us. And I regret that she threatened our sponsors.” Payne did not mention funeral plans but said Augusta National would privately honor Johnson and celebrate his “extraordinary life” in the days ahead.