Complex man at center of Augusta National storm

Updated: October 10, 2002, 10:51 PM ET
Associated Press

It would be easy to portray Hootie Johnson as a stubborn Southerner, a rube who believes women should stay in the kitchen and not concern themselves with becoming members of Augusta National Golf Club.

Hootie Johnson
Hootie Johnson has been a member at Augusta National since 1967.

Then he goes and invites the University of South Carolina women's golf team to play 18 holes with him at the hallowed home of the Masters.

"It was incredible,'' said Kristi Coggins, the team's coach. "From the minute we drove through the gate, we were treated like queens. Hootie Johnson was so gracious.''

Obviously, there is more to William Woodward Johnson than just his very public defense of Augusta's male-only membership.

His supporters describe him as a man of inclusion, going back to the turbulent days of the civil rights movement in South Carolina.

Johnson helped blacks get elected to the state legislature for the first time since the turn of the century. He ran a committee that desegregated the state's public colleges. His was one of the first major banks in the South to appoint a black to the board of directors.

"He had the reputation of being progressive,'' said I.S. Leevy Johnson, one of three blacks elected to the Legislature in 1970 with Hootie Johnson's backing.

His campaign to foster racial harmony spilled over to feminine causes. The father of four daughters, he appointed women to management positions at Bankers Trust, a company started by his father but guided to national prominence by the son.

Four years ago, Johnson brokered a deal in which South Carolina became the first major college to name its business school after a woman, New York investment banker Darla Moore.

Maybe that's why so many people were stunned at Johnson's defiant reaction to a letter from Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations.

Burk asked Augusta National to admit female members for the first time in its 69-year history. Johnson not only declined to discuss the club's membership policies, he released a scathing statement saying Augusta would not be forced to have a female member "at the point of a bayonet.''

Burk called Johnson "insensitive'' and "confrontational.''

"We were trying the olive-branch approach, but he's unwilling to talk,'' Burk said.

"You can't intimidate him. He's been a fighter all his life."
Leevy Johnson, former South Carolina legislator

Malissa Burnette, an attorney who has handled several high-profile court cases advancing the cause of women in South Carolina, said Johnson's response to Burk seemed out of character.

"It has people scratching their heads. Who is the real Hootie Johnson? Will he please step forward?''

To others, Johnson's response was not out of character. He has always favored working behind the scenes, without fanfare, to address social problems. He doesn't like being pushed into a very public corner, especially when it comes to matters involving Augusta National.

"You can't intimidate him,'' Leevy Johnson said. "He's been a fighter all his life.''

The 71-year-old Hootie Johnson is an Augusta native who attended his first Masters when he was 4. He views himself as the keeper of the green jacket, preserving the club's independence and the spirit of Bobby Jones.

One week a year, Augusta National hosts one of golf's four major tournaments. The other 51 weeks, it retreats behind the tall gates that seclude Magnolia Lane from the outside world.

The private club has no formal link with any players or organizations, allowing it to set its own rules, move at its own pace. Augusta didn't admit a black member until 1990, purportedly thanks to an inside effort led by Johnson before the club could become a target of protests.

Of course, he became a member in 1968 and the club's vice president in 1975, so it wasn't as if Johnson moved with haste to break down the policy of racial exclusion.

When it comes to women, Augusta National is more open than some other male-only clubs. Women played more than 1,000 rounds last year, with no restrictions on their tee times or access to the clubhouse.

"That, in itself, says a lot about his attitude,'' Coggins said.

"It's important for people to know who the real Hootie is. He doesn't discriminate against anybody."
Former South Carolina Gov. Robert McNair

According to his supporters, Johnson probably already was working with his usual deliberate, low-key style to admit a female member when Burk tried to hurry along the process. That resulted in a stalemate.

Johnson, who is recovering from heart surgery, has declined all requests for interviews. But former South Carolina Gov. Robert McNair said, "He's very strong-willed. He doesn't respond to pressure very well.''

Johnson's feistiness was evident during his football career at South Carolina in the early 1950s. He wasn't afraid to mix it up with bigger players, becoming one of the best blockers in the Atlantic Coast Conference as a fullback.

"He was very smart, very tough,'' said Johnny Gramling, the team's quarterback. "The only drawback he had was his eyesight. It wasn't good. Back then, they didn't have contacts and stuff like that. He couldn't catch a pass.''

After graduating from South Carolina, Johnson followed his father into the banking business. By 1965, he became the youngest bank president in the state, taking over the helm of Bankers Trust at 34.

A pioneer of interstate banking, Johnson guided the family company through a series of mergers. Eventually, it became part of Bank of America.

McNair was governor during the 1968 "Orangeburg Massacre,'' a pivotal civil rights moment in which three black college students were killed by South Carolina troopers. He said Johnson was a key figure in curbing racial intolerance, gradually convincing the business community that integration was vital to the state's growth.

"It's important for people to know who the real Hootie is,'' McNair said. "He doesn't discriminate against anybody.''

South Carolina football coach Lou Holtz is now a member at Augusta National, undoubtedly because of his friendship with Johnson. They play golf together and get their hair cut by the same barber.

"He's very humble,'' Holtz said. "He never talks about his athletics, never talks about what he's done.''

Johnson has done a lot at Augusta National since taking over in 1998. Already, he's overseen more changes in the club's signature event than the previous three chairmen combined.

The qualifying criteria for the Masters was changed. A second cut of rough was introduced. Television coverage was expanded. And the course itself underwent its biggest renovation since the club opened in 1933.

When it comes to female members, Johnson isn't ready to budge -- yet.

"I think it's inevitable,'' Leevy Johnson said. "If anything, I think this controversy has delayed it. In my opinion, Hootie was already trying to do it on the inside.''


Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press

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