William “Hootie” Johnson, the former chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, has died at age 86.
Johnson is one of only six men to serve as chairman of Augusta National, and while The Masters reached new heights during Johnson’s tenure, he leaves behind a complicated legacy.
Under his tenure as chairman from 1998-2006, Johnson oversaw the lengthening of Augusta National as new technology allowed golfers to hit the ball further, ensuring the course remained a tough test for the world’s best players each year on the second weekend in April. Johnson also helped to keep the field truly elite, making changes to the tournament’s qualifying procedure.
Johnson helped bring the Masters to a wider audience, as he expanded television coverage of the tournament to the entire 18-hole course for the first time–it was previously contained to only the final 10 holes–and reopened the waiting list for tournament badges for fans for the first time since the 1980s.
But Johnson was also in charge of Augusta National during its biggest controversy: the highly publicized disagreement with Martha Burk over the club’s policy not to allow female members.
In 2002, Martha Burk, who was chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, wrote a letter to Johnson suggesting Augusta National’s male-only membership policy was sexist.
In Johnson’s response, which played out publicly, he claimed the club had the same rights as any private club, citing the Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts and sororities/fraternities as examples of organizations which allowed membership to only one gender.
However, Johnson’s tone in his response was less than subtle, calling Burk’s letter “offensive and coercive,” and saying the club would not change their policy “at the point of a bayonet,” and they would not be “bullied, threatened or intimidated.” The response sparking a national controversy over the issue, with Burk leading protests against the club, including one near the course property in Augusta during the 2003 Masters.
Johnson, speaking as the public face of the Augusta National membership, certainly came across as stubborn, and many saw the response as misogynist and discriminatory. This characterization of Johnson is ironic, because his personal history shows a much more progressive man than the one portrayed in 2002.
Johnson, a former running back at the University of South Carolina, worked as a banker in Greenwood, South Carolina before rising to prominence in the business world as an executive at Bank of America before becoming chairman at Augusta National.
As a businessman, Johnson served as co-chairman of a committee that developed a plan to desegregate state colleges and universities in South Carolina, and was a trustee at historically black Benedict College. As a banker, Johnson often appointed both women and African-Americans to his corporate boards in an era before such appointments were common, and loaned money to minorities when others would not. He was also the first prominent businessman to suggest removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House.
U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn (D-SC) defended Johnson to USA Today in 2002: “His whole life has been just the opposite of what he’s being portrayed. He’s always come down on the side of access and equality. He’s not a prejudiced person in any way. He is not deserving of this controversy.”
Johnson, who was a member of Augusta National since 1968 after joining at the invitation of club co-founder Bobby Jones, eventually resigned as chairman in 2006 at age 75, becoming chairman emeritus; the club admitted two female members, Condeleeza Rice and Darla Moore, in August 2012.
Augusta National and The Masters certainly grew during Johnson’s term as chairman, but after serving in a role where most haven’t been a household name–current chairman Billy Payne is still probably better known among non-golf fans as the CEO of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics–he’ll likely be most remembered for the standoff on Augusta’s membership policy, making his legacy complicated as he is remembered in the coming days.
Chairmen of Augusta National Golf Club:
Clifford Roberts, 1931-76
William Lane, 1976-80
Hord Hardin, 1980-91
Jackson Stephens, 1991-98
Hootie Johnson, 1998-2006
Billy Payne, 2006-present