The chairman of Augusta National Golf Club is occasionally tasked with hitting out of the rough, through no fault of his own.
No one did it better than Hootie Johnson.
In his 1998-2006 tenure as chairman of the most prestigious golf club in the nation, the Augusta native and legendary South Carolina businessman not only had to hold sway over the most renowned championship in golf, but to create the conditions for it — while juggling the occasional extraneous crisis.
Johnson oversaw a titanic effort to keep steps ahead of both the technology of golf and the athleticism of today’s golfers. Under his meticulous supervision, the Augusta National course was lengthened for the 2006 Masters to 7,445 yards from the previous 7,270 yards. He had also overseen the extension to the 7,270 yards in 2002.
And when activist Martha Burk took it upon herself to demand female admittance to the all-male club in 2002-2003, Johnson stood strong against the attempted intimidation of sponsor boycotts — presiding over a commercial-free Masters, to protect the tournament’s partners.
The protest was a flop — and, years later, Johnson himself would sponsor friend, philanthropist and fellow South Carolinian Darla Moore as one of the club’s first two female members, along with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Born William Woodward Johnson in Augusta in 1931, he grew to manhood in South Carolina, where his father had purchased a bank. After a standout football career at the University of South Carolina, he followed in his father’s banking footsteps — even rising to become chairman of the executive committee of Bank of America Corp.
He was invited to become a member of Augusta National by co-founder Bobby Jones himself, a rare and historic privilege Johnson always cherished.
Upon Johnson’s death July 14 at 86, current Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne said Johnson had left “a legacy of exceptional service to our club, our tournament and the game of golf.”
Besides lengthening the course “to ensure that Augusta National would always represent the very finest test of golf,” Payne noted that “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.”
Maintaining treasured tradition, yet advancing the game and club into the future, is a delicate balance. Hootie Johnson did both, and did them elegantly.
This and more is the estimable footprint of Hootie Johnson. But we can tell you from personal experience, and that of those around him, that the private man was even more impressive than the public figure.
A man of sterling character and integrity who put God, family, community and country in their proper places, Hootie Johnson was a lighthouse for all who knew him. He was an especially exemplary role model for his children and grandchildren, who were privileged to grow in the protective shadow of his wisdom.
Though Johnson believed devoutly in the divine grace and salvation to be found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, his advice to his young ones — which the family fondly called “Hootisms” — was as earthy as it gets.
Do the right thing and do it the right way.
Do your best.
Persevere. Be polite. Be humble.
No matter how big you get, don’t forget others.
Don’t show off. You don’t have to tell everything you know.
These are nuggets of lustrous gold, from a man who regularly hosted some of the most powerful and influential people on the planet.
His senior pastor at Columbia’s Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Dr. Bradley Smith, recalled one instance in which Johnson took his own advice — you don’t have to tell everything you know — right in front of Smith. The two were enjoying bowls of restaurant soup when a waiter offered sherry to a confused Smith. Johnson explained that the waiter simply knew he liked sherry. The truth, which Johnson politely withheld, is that sherry is often offered as a complement to an exquisite soup.
Johnson clearly didn’t want to show Smith up.
“He was gracious. That was Hootie,” Smith said in his eulogy for Johnson last Monday.
On another occasion, when Smith anticipated that Johnson might make a phone call or two to raise funds to fight hunger in the “Souper Bowl of Caring,” he was surprised to learn that Johnson would be accompanying him on a donor visit — several states away. It led to a million-dollar gift.
Johnson, notes the pastor, served on a statewide committee on desegregation in the 1960s, was a pioneer in providing opportunities for women and African-Americans in banking in the 1970s, and led his grandchildren to pick up roadside trash in the 1990s — no doubt to raise them up as much as to clean things up.
Another “Hootism” — leave things better than you found them. That’s what Hootie Johnson did.
Augusta National, this community and region, and the international game of golf are the better for his leadership, sportsmanship, friendship and discipleship.