Au­gusta Na­tional chair­man re­sisted pres­sure to al­low fe­male mem­bers

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - HOOTIE JOHN­SON, 86 BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

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

SHAUN BEST/REUTERS

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.

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