William W. “Hootie” Johnson never backed down from a fight.
Whether it was on the football field, in the boardroom or over Augusta National Golf Club’s all-male membership, Johnson stood firm in his convictions.
The former Masters Tournament chairman died Friday morning. He was 86.
Johnson served as Augusta National Golf Club’s chairman from 1998 to 2006, and under his direction the famed Alister Mackenzie-Bobby Jones layout was lengthened to 7,445 yards. During his tenure, 14 of the 18 holes were altered as Augusta National led the charge against advances in golf ball and club technology that threatened to make older courses obsolete.
Johnson also modified the qualifications for invitation to the tournament, initiated 18-hole television coverage and began the practice of announcing the club’s donations to charity.
But it was his response to Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, that thrust him into the national spotlight in the summer of 2002.
Burk challenged Augusta National’s all-male membership, and Johnson responded with a terse, three-paragraph reply and issued a statement to the media that outlined the club’s position. He famously said the private club would not change at the “point of a bayonet.”
“Our club has historically enjoyed a camaraderie and kindred spirit that we think is the heart and soul of our club. And that makes it difficult for us to consider change,” Johnson told The Augusta Chronicle at the height of the controversy. “Now a woman could very well, as I’ve said before, become a member of Augusta. But that is some time out in the future. And in the meantime, we’ll hold dear our traditions, and our constitutional right, to choose and to associate.”
The controversy escalated as Burk threatened to boycott the tournament and its sponsors, but Johnson responded by releasing the club’s TV sponsors for two years. A planned protest during the 2003 Masters by Burk and her supporters fizzled.
Johnson was succeeded as club and tournament chairman by Billy Payne, who in 2012 ushered in the club’s first two female members. Johnson sponsored Darla Moore, a fellow South Carolinian and businesswoman. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also became a member.
“This is wonderful news for Augusta National Golf Club, and I could not be more pleased,” Johnson said at the time. “Darla Moore is my good friend, and I know she and Condoleezza Rice will enjoy the club as much as I have.”
Payne mourned the loss of Johnson, calling him a personal mentor on Masters matters as well as those in business and life.
“He boldly directed numerous course improvements to ensure that Augusta National would always represent the very finest test of golf,” Payne said in a statement. “Simultaneously, Hootie expanded television coverage of the Masters, improved qualification standards for invitation to the Tournament and reopened the series badge waiting list for the first time in more than 20 years. Many of these measures brought more people than ever closer to the Masters and inspired us to continue exploring ways to welcome people all over the world to the Tournament and the game of golf.”
Six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus echoed those sentiments.
“Barbara and I are terribly saddened and sorry to hear about the passing of Hootie Johnson,” Nicklaus said in a statement. “During his eight years as Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, Hootie did a great job. He furthered the growth of the Club and the Masters Tournament—from a patrons’ perspective and with a global television audience. He also took steps to ensure that the golf course stayed up with today’s technology.”
William Woodward Johnson was born in Augusta on Feb. 16, 1931. He got the nickname “Hootie” from a childhood playmate when he was 5.
“I had an older brother and sister, and they thought it was cute, so it stuck,’’ Johnson told The Chronicle in a 1999 interview. “But my mother called me William till I was 21. Then she started calling me Hootie.”
His family lived in North Augusta when he was born, but moved to Augusta in 1935. Johnson attended the Masters that year for the first time.
He attended schools in Augusta and began playing golf at Augusta Country Club, where his father was a member.
“I’ve always had a close place in my heart for Augusta,” Johnson said.
The Johnson family left Augusta for Greenwood, S.C., when he was 11. Johnson’s father, Dewey, bought the Bank of Greenwood with the goal of creating a statewide bank.
Johnson wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, but first he took time out to become a football star. He was a star tailback at Greenwood High, but not before getting ejected from a pair of games for fighting early in his career.
“I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot and get kicked out of the game,” he once said. “I’m still denying it. There were no witnesses.”
His exploits earned him a scholarship to the University of South Carolina. He moved to fullback and excelled at that position, earning the Jacobs Blocking Trophy in 1952.
Johnson and his brother took over the family bank when their father died in 1961. They turned it into Bankers Trust, and through a series of mergers and acquisitions he eventually rose to chairman of the executive committee of Bank of America Corp. He retired from that position in 2001.
As one of the state’s most influential businessmen, Johnson often wielded his power. He supported many black candidates for public office, and he was among the first to call for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina’s statehouse.
He provided loans to minorities, through his bank, when others wouldn’t.
And he coaxed Moore, the wealthy financier, to donate $25 million to the University of South Carolina School of Business. It was his idea for the school to be named for her.
Johnson became an Augusta National member in 1968, and he had connections with the club’s founding fathers: Jones and Clifford Roberts, the club’s first chairman.
Jones wrote Johnson a letter inviting him to join the club. Even though Johnson never met the golf legend, who was in declining health, he treasured the letter and kept it in his files.
“Just him doing the inviting was special,” Johnson said.
Johnson became good friends with Roberts, and spent time with him away from the club. In 1975, Johnson was named vice president of Augusta National.
Those connections led to him being named Augusta National’s fifth chairman in the spring of 1998, and it didn’t take long for him to make changes.
The first came by changing one of the qualifications to play in the Masters by inviting the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking. The club had traditionally invited international players at its discretion, but controversies arose from time to time when a top U.S. player did not qualify and foreign-born players were given exemptions.
Johnson also attempted to end the lifetime exemptions for Masters champions in 2002. He sent letters to former champions Gay Brewer, Billy Casper and Doug Ford asking them to no longer compete in the tournament because they exhibited a pattern of not completing their rounds.
Ford withdrew from his final four Masters appearances, including in 2001, when he quit after one hole. Brewer and Casper each withdrew twice in their final three appearances at Augusta National.
After a meeting with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Johnson rescinded the order to ban champions after they turned 65, which was to go into effect in 2004.
Johnson also wasn’t shy about making changes to Augusta National. Prior to the 1999 Masters, Johnson announced that the second cut, or rough, had been increased. He also made changes to three holes.
That was a precursor to the sweeping changes that went into effect for the 2002 Masters. Alarmed by how far modern professionals were hitting the golf ball, Johnson ordered nine holes to be altered by architect Tom Fazio.
The nine holes – Nos. 1, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14 and 18 – were all lengthened, stretching the course an additional 285 yards to 7,270 yards. Tees on four holes (Nos. 8, 10, 11 and 18) were shifted slightly, and bunkers on Nos. 1, 8 and 18 were enlarged.
Some players criticized the changes, with most complaints saying it would favor longer hitters, but Johnson took great delight when short hitters Mike Weir and Zach Johnson slipped on green jackets.
Johnson ordered up another round of changes for 2006, and the focus this time was on accuracy. Six more holes were lengthened a total of 155 yards, bringing the course to 7,445 yards.
After stepping aside in 2006, Johnson became chairman emeritus.
Johnson is survived by his wife Pierrine and their four daughters. His funeral will be held Monday at 2 p.m. at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, 3200 Trenholm Road in Columbia.