Q&A with Augusta chairman Hootie Johnson

Updated: November 11, 2002, 5:22 PM ET
Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- In his four years as chairman of Augusta National, Hootie Johnson has revamped the qualifications for The Masters, eliminated the lifetime exemption for past champions and orchestrated massive redesigns of the golf course.

Each decision was accompanied by only a few words of explanation.

But when the head of a women's group wrote to Johnson in June demanding that the club invite a female member, the 71-year-old chairman fired off a scathing, three-page statement to the media defending Augusta's traditions and rights as a private club.

He has kept silent as Martha Burk of the National Council of Women's Organizations has campaigned against sex discrimination at Augusta National. The Associated Press sat down with Johnson on Nov. 4 in his second-floor office, whose walls bear a photo of Johnson and former chairman Clifford Roberts and an original portrait of Bobby Jones painted by President Eisenhower:

HJ: There's been so much speculation about when we are going to have a woman member at Augusta. And I thought we ought to get the record straight.

We have no timetable on a woman member. And our club has enjoyed a camaraderie and a closeness that's served us well for so long that it makes it difficult for us to consider change. As I've said before, a woman may be a member of this club one day, but that is out in the future. And in the meantime, we will hold dear to our tradition and our constitutional right to choose and associate.

Q: Would you ever consider canceling the Masters?

A: No.

Q: Under any circumstances?

A: No. There will always be a Masters.

Q: Even if you felt this debate had reached a point that it was starting to tarnish the image of the Masters or the club?

A: I don't see that happening. The majority of Americans are with us on this issue. I want you to know that.

Q: How do you know that?

A: I just know it. I know it by the response I get here. (He points to a letter on the coffee table, with a Lancaster, Pa., newspaper clipping of a poll. Of 624 people, 90 percent said Augusta should not have to admit a female.) And I also know it because we're right. You know, some of the media tries to portray us -- or this woman portrays us -- as being discriminatory, and being bigots. And we're not. We're a private club. And private organizations are good. The Boy Scouts. The Girl Scouts. Junior League. Sororities. Fraternities. Are these immoral? But they're trying to portray us as being discriminatory and being bigots. We will prevail because we're right.

Q: One could make the argument that Augusta National is different than the Boys Scouts because it hosts a very public golf tournament, the crown jewel of golf, which generates a lot of money for the club.

A: No, the membership does not benefit from the tournament. The money goes back into the tournament, or we give it away.

Q: Would Augusta National be what it is today without The Masters?

A: I think they go hand-in-hand. The two complement each other.

Q: It seems like the relationship with Augusta and The Masters make it a very public staging. One of the questions raised is should a public tournament be held to ...

A: We should be penalized for presenting something that's good for the game of golf? Something that 150 million people watch around the world? Something that's a harbinger of spring? Something that is respected worldwide, probably is one of the top, if not the top, sporting events? (Voice rising) And we're going to be penalized for presenting that?

Q: How would you be penalized?

A: By suggesting we're going to lose our private-club status.

Q: You mention in your letter that Augusta was ''strongly urged to radically change our membership.'' What did you mean by radical? And would a female member be a radical change?

A: Yes. It would be a big change.

Q: And yet you allow women to play the course regularly.

A: Sure.

Q: What's the problem with having one as a member?

A: Well, (pause) we just don't choose to do that (long pause) at this time.

Q: Is there any chance we'll see a female member by April?

A: No.

Q: Can you say how close you were to having a woman member until this debate seemingly brought everything to a halt?

A: I would say that this issue being raised has had nothing to do with whether we have a woman member or don't have a woman member.

Q: Why send Dr. Burk a three-sentence letter, which is consistent with your discussions on club matters, but then issue three pages of a very terse and somewhat defiant statement to the media?

A: She threatened us and she threatened our sponsors. We wanted to let her and the public know how we felt about it.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: I seldom have any regrets. I don't look back much. I regret that she threatened us. And I regret that she threatened our sponsors.

Q: You also wrote that you wanted to avoid ''backroom discussions.'' In light of the way this has transpired, would backroom discussions have been better than having this splashed across headlines?

A: If someone comes up to you and threatens you, or says that ''I think I'd like to move in with you,'' what do you say? ''Let's sit down and talk about it''?

Q: Do you think the public's perception of The Masters has changed because of this?

A: No. I don't think we've been damaged, for the reasons I said. This woman said we're discriminating and that we're bigots. Most of the media has picked up and focused on that solely.

Q: But I think one of the thoughts is that The Masters has become public property.

A: But we're not. That's one week. Fifty-one weeks of the year, we are a private club. And we do something good for one week, for the sporting world, and we're going to be penalized?

Q: You did say in April you had no exclusionary policies. But you also haven't had a woman here since 1933. How does that square with the other?

A: It squares that we haven't felt a need to invite one, or that we wanted to.

Q: That almost makes it sound like a woman has nothing to offer to the club.

A: You're really trying to bait me now. Do you think girls have anything to offer the Boy Scouts? Do men have anything to offer to the Junior League? No. We're a private club. We have a right to choose and associate with whom we please.

Q: There hasn't been a need to have one as a member?

A: I said we didn't choose to have one.

Q: You allow women to play thousands of rounds here. What would be the difference of having one as a member?

A: Well, at the opening, I said that we enjoy our camaraderie that I guess men enjoy. And Bobby Jones' kindred spirit. Do you understand those terms, as far as men being together?

Q: Do you look at this more as a social club than a golf club?

A: It's a golf club.

Q: Do you think men and women can mix on a golf course?

A: Sure.

Q: Can the camaraderie not exist?

A: We have parties, four parties a year, and those are times that we have this camaraderie and this closeness. There are no guests. They are member parties. The members are together.

Q: You said you felt threatened by Martha's letter.

A: No. She threatened us. But I haven't felt threatened.

Q: What about Shoal Creek? Why did you not have a black member until 1990?

A: Shoal Creek has got nothing to do with this. Nothing.

Q: Did you not have your first black member until '90?

A: Yes, but that hasn't got anything to do ... Racial discrimination and gender are two different things. Do you know of any constitutional lawyer that's ever said they were the same? Do you know any civil rights activists that said it was the same? Do you? It's not relevant. Nobody accepts them as being the same.

Q: How do you feel about comments from members who have ...

A: I'm not going to talk about members. We'll handle that internally. We don't discuss member matters.

Q: Do you feel the club has put some of them in an awkward position?

A: No.

Q: Did you get any indication from your television sponsors that this might be a problem?

A: No. We just decided to let them off the hook.

Q: How far are you prepared to go without a sponsor?

A: We could go indefinitely. But I don't think we'll have to. They'll be back. We'll have our sponsors back. Some sponsors.

Q: What makes you say that?

A: I just believe that we're right on this issue, and that they'll be comfortable in sponsoring The Masters Tournament. There will be sponsors that will be comfortable.

Q: Do you think they would have been uncomfortable now?

A: Yes. Obviously, that's why I let them go.

Q: Safe to assume you think this attention will go away?

A: I think so.

Q: Any idea when?

A: Smiles and shakes his head (no).

Q: Did you ever consider pay-for-view?

A: Shakes his head (no).

Q: Ever consider no television?

A: No. We'd like to bring The Masters to the 150 million people out there. Why would we want to think about not having television?

Q: How many letters have you received?

A: (He points to four files on his desk, all bulging with letters.) I don't know. What would you say that is, 400 or 500?

Q: Any negative?

A: A few.

Q: Do you read them all?

A: I read them all. They (club employees) fax them or send them to me.

Q: Do you respond?

A: Every one.

Q: Pro or con?

A: No, we don't respond to the cons.

Q: Has anything Martha Burk said made any sense to you as a businessman or civic leader?

A: I really haven't paid much attention to what that woman has said.

Q: What has annoyed you the most?

A: I haven't been annoyed. That's not true. You'll have to let me off on that. Well, this whole issue annoys me. One of the things that disappointed me most is the press has not been fair in so many ways. I know some of you people know us. But when she throws out ''bigotry'' and ''discriminatory'' ... if we're discriminating, then all those other single-gender organizations are discriminating. And they're not. It's a terrible thing if they're accused of that also.

Q: Do you expect to see pickets outside the gates in April?

A: I predicted that some time back.

Q: How will you deal with that? What would you think about protests or pickets?

A: Well, our patrons are ladies and gentlemen, and they'll ignore any protesters that may be there.

Q: Do you care what anyone thinks about your club?

A: Sure. We like to be perceived as a good organization. And the fact we present The Masters Tournament speaks very well. We do something good. And Bob Jones, he represented integrity and honesty and fairness and doing the right thing. We try to hope that it's symbolic of our club and The Masters Tournament.

Q: Are you concerned about presentation of this tournament when the focus will be on this issue come April? Makes you wonder if anyone will realize Tiger is going for three in a row?

A: A lot of that depends on you folks, whether you want to focus on an issue that really is not relevant after a while. It's not relevant. But we won't be focusing on it.

Q: Your record as a business leader and civic leader, how much you've done to promote civil rights. Do you fear people will forget that? When people think Hootie Johnson, do you think they'll see him as a chairman who said no to women as members?

A: No. I don't have any worry about that. We're doing the right thing now. I'm comfortable with the way I've lived my life for the most part. That doesn't mean I haven't made mistakes.

Q: How do you suppose Clifford Roberts would have tackled this?

A: I'd like to think that he and Bobby Jones would have approved with what we are doing.

Q: Does Augusta speak with one voice?

A: That's a membership matter. I don't care to answer that.

Q. Maybe my questions are because I'm on the outside of the club in the midst of a debate, and you are on the inside and not affected in the least by this. You sit down with a chairman who doesn't look any different than when he was talking about course changes in March. You don't feel this is a problem, this attack on the club?

A: I think we'll prevail -- that we're right, and we'll prevail. It's unfortunate, but we'll prevail.

Q: What's unfortunate about it?

A: That we have this hassle. That ... let's just let it go at that.

Q: Do you think many would be surprised to see a chairman whose name has been used and abused over the last four months, who doesn't look like he's lost a lot of sleep over it?

A: Well, I probably have lost some sleep. Really, the most offensive thing is somebody calling me an ''old coot.''

Q: Do you not like the ''old'' or the ''coot?''

A: Both. (Laughing.)

Q: Do you think this has tarnished The Masters?

A: No.


Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press

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