Augusta National chairman resisted pressure to allow female members
Hootie Johnson, a South Carolina banker who, as chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, oversaw the Masters Tournament for eight years and adamantly resisted efforts to have women admitted as members of the exclusive club, as he put it, “at the point of a bayonet,” died July 14. He was 86.
Augusta National announced his death but provided no details. He had a history of heart ailments.
Mr. Johnson rose from the presidency of a small-town bank in Greenwood, S.C., to become a top executive with Bank of America, but he was far better known for his leadership at Augusta National, where he was chairman from 1998 to 2006, and guardian of its standards.
He was 4 when he attended his first Masters at Augusta National in 1935, the second year the tournament was held. The Masters is golf’s only major tournament that takes place each year at the same course.
To golfers, Augusta National is known as one of the world’s most beautiful and challenging courses, set amid tall pine trees, colorful azaleas and stone bridges crossing Rae’s Creek. The Masters is known for its timehonored customs, including the awarding of a green jacket to each year’s champion.
After Tiger Woods and other young golfers began to make exceptionally low scores in the Masters in the late 1990s, Mr. Johnson decided to toughen the course. The distance from tee to cup was increased on many holes, and the grassy rough along the fairways was allowed to grow, putting a premium on accurate shots.
Mr. Johnson also recommended that former Masters champions past the age of 65 no longer take part in the tournament. He rescinded the order but not before angering many older golfers and their fans.
He peeled away some of the secrecy of the Masters by allowing television coverage of all 18 holes on the tournament’s final day. Yet, under Mr. Johnson’s guidance, the Masters continued to stand out as a pristine sporting jewel and an unapologetic stronghold of tradition.
Among those traditions was a long-standing rule that membership of Augusta National was restricted to men. Usually there are about 300 members of the private, invitation-only club in Augusta, Ga., along the South Carolina border. Members include many of the country’s titans of industry and finance, as well as prominent figures in politics and sports.
In 2002, Martha Burk, then chairwoman of the Washingtonbased National Council of Women’s Organizations, sought a meeting with Mr. Johnson to discuss admitting women as members of Augusta National. His response was hardly conciliatory.
“We will not be bullied, threatened, or intimidated,” he said in a statement. “There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours, and not at the point of a bayonet.”
Burk led demonstrations at the club, which prompted Mr. Johnson and the club’s old guard to dig in their heels.
“This issue is about power and concentrated power which specifically excludes women,” Burk told The Washington Post in 2003. “Corporate leaders claim that they do not discriminate in their companies. But, by their membership at Augusta, they are legitimizing sex discrimination at the highest levels.”
Mr. Johnson’s truculence seemed out of character to some. He had been an advocate of civil rights since the 1960s, had helped desegregate South Carolina’s colleges and called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the state Capitol. At Augusta National, he helped recruit more African American members.
As the public spotlight intensified, Mr. Johnson continued to fight efforts to open the club’s doors to women.
“We’re a private club,” he said. “We will prevail because we are right.”
Burk charged that Mr. Johnson lived in a “white-male, privileged bubble,” and announced efforts to boycott Masters sponsors and the companies run by club members. Mr. Johnson countered by eliminating all advertising from the tournament’s broadcasts in 2003 and 2004.
“Our private club does not discriminate,” he said. “We resent it very much when that accusation is made against us.”
“What else would you call it?” Burk retorted.
Whether in step with history or not, Mr. Johnson made it clear that he and his club would not be swayed by public opinion.
“If I drop dead right now, I promise our position will not change on this issue,” he said in 2003. “It’s not my issue alone.”
The protests diminished over time, and the tournament continued without losing any of its luster. When Mr. Johnson stepped down as chairman in 2006, women were still not allowed to be members of Augusta National.
Finally, in 2012, the club announced that it had admitted its first female members: former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore.
“This is wonderful news for Augusta National Golf Club,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement, “and I could not be more pleased.”
William Woodward Johnson was born Feb. 16, 1931, in Augusta. His father, a banking executive, moved the family to Greenwood, S.C., several years later.
Mr. Johnson, who was known as Hootie from childhood, attended the University of South Carolina on a football scholarship and graduated in 1953.
He went to work at his family’s bank, originally called the Bank of Greenwood, and served one term in the South Carolina legislature in the late 1950s.
After becoming bank president in 1965, he expanded to other cities in South Carolina and oversaw mergers that led to the formation of the Charlotte-based Bank of America, which at one time was the country’s largest bank. Mr. Johnson was chairman of its corporate executive committee.
Survivors include his wife of 65 years, the former Pierrine Baker of Columbia, S.C.; four daughters; 10 grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren.
“Mr. Johnson was very much an old-school Southerner,” one of his friends, civil rights leader and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young told the Associated Press in 2006. “He was ready to grow, he was ready to change, but he wasn’t going to be pushed . . .
“Let’s give him credit for all the good he did, and not try to blame him because he wasn’t able to see into the 21st century.”
“There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours, and not at the point of a bayonet.” Hootie Johnson, in 2002
Hootie Johnson presents Masters champion Tiger Woods with the golf tournament’s famed green jacket in 2002. The private Augusta National Golf Club did not admit female members until 2012.