You may not like it, but Hootie's right


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Perhaps it is the name. William Johnson, chairman of Augusta National and at the center of a membership controversy, goes by the nickname of "Hootie.'' He's been called that since childhood, prefers it even. Sounds more approachable, he says.

But going by that name sure made him an easy mark when it came to taking him to task for his stern stance on Augusta's all-male membership policy.

He's been called a redneck and a bigot and a good ol' boy and your typical southern, white elitist, a country bumpkin trying to keep women in their place.

In fact, Johnson, 72, used to be a member of the Democratic Party in his home state of South Carolina. He supported African-American candidates for office, along with the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol in his hometown of Columbia, S.C.

Johnson, an Augusta member since 1968, was one of the driving forces behind the club inviting its first black member in 1990. A father with four daughters, he has even hosted the University of South Carolina women's golf team at Augusta National.

Hard as it may seem to believe, Johnson might be among the more progressive people on the property this week when the 67th Masters is played under a cloud of controversy.

But on the matter of whether Augusta National should admit its first female member, Johnson has been unwavering.

He believes private clubs have a right to choose members as they wish, without outside interference.

And if you strip away all the outside factors -- the political pressure, the moral issue, the question of whether or not this is good for the game of golf -- Johnson is correct.

Augusta National's right to admit whom it chooses is constitutionally protected. There is no law that says the club should invite women ... or anyone, for that matter.

"The great thing about our society is we have the freedom to gather in groups, however we want,'' PGA Tour player Paul Azinger said. "It's a club. If I want a club that excludes everybody named Jim, that would be my privilege. It's a club, Augusta National. Women play Augusta National, they just don't have any single female members. Women work at Augusta National, the club donates money to women's groups. But they don't allow women to be a member without a husband. So what?''

That, for the most part, has been the reaction of the golf world. Most golf fans side with the club. Just a few hundred yards from the Augusta front gate on Washington Road is a vendor hawking "I support Hootie'' buttons and tee-shirts.

Few, if any, Augusta National members are willing to enter into the debate. The late Thomas Wyman, retired chairman of CBS, resigned his Augusta membership in protest. Another member, John W. Snow, also resigned in light of his nomination and eventual confirmation as President Bush's secretary of the treasury. Only Wyman spoke out about the lack of female members.

Others, including Augusta members and former Masters champions Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, have said little, mostly out of respect to the club and Johnson.

"I'm not afraid to talk,'' said Fred Ridley, an Augusta National member who is also a vice president of the United States Golf Association. "But I was asked to be a member of an organization and I agreed to the type of governance that the club has and I'm going to respect that. It's a matter of integrity. I believe that Hootie Johnson cares deeply about the game of golf and the Augusta National Golf Club, and that's his paramount objective.''

There are more than a few who wonder, "What overall good will come of a rich woman gaining entrance to a very exclusive, 300-member club?' And they have a good point.

That's not to say that Johnson has not erred along the way.

His initial response to Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, was flat-out wrong and extremely ill-advised. The remarkable thing is that Johnson didn't just fire back at Burk, he took his time before blasting her with his now-famous "point of a bayonet'' response. He sought input from other Augusta members and colleagues.

The three-page letter that he released to the media -- Burk's original letter to Johnson seeking a dialogue on the subject was meant to remain private -- lit a fire under Burk, and likely caused her to believe many of the stereotypes associated with Hootie's nickname.

And the fight was on.

"You know, some of the media tries to portray us -- or this woman portrays us -- as being discriminatory, and being bigots,'' Johnson said last year. "And we're not. We're a private club. We will prevail, because we're right.''

It has been suggested in this space previously that Johnson should give up the fight, that the protesters and those protesting the protesters should be enough to make him give in. What could a female member or two hurt? Shouldn't Augusta National do the right thing and admit a woman?

Of course, that is easy to say, too. It's not our club, not our golf tournament.

Johnson calls the shots. And it is his right to call them however he sees fit.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com