William Woodward “Hootie” Johnson deserves a warmer legacy.
The Augusta native played fullback for South Carolina from 1950-52 and became a giant in the banking industry before most of the world got to know him as the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club from 1998-2006.
It’s that last role that most defines Johnson to the rest of the world beyond South Carolina and Georgia. There’s two ways of looking at his legacy.
Most will probably remember Johnson as the man who refused to be pressured “at the point of a bayonet” to open the club’s membership ranks to women.
His deepest impact, however, was as the man who oversaw the most sweeping changes in the history of the Masters Tournament to become its most important steward since founding chairman Clifford Roberts. Augusta National’s most liberal and progressive leader took it upon himself to make some of the toughest decisions on behalf of the tournament’s future in an era of technological advances.
It was Johnson who bolstered the field with updated qualifications, expanding the global reach by including the world’s top 50 players.
It was Johnson who expanded the television coverage to the full 18 holes while keeping the commercialization to a minimum.
It was Johnson who accelerated the club’s extension beyond its borders and ushered in the facilities and amenities expansion spear-headed by his successor, Billy Payne.
It was Johnson who lifted the veil on the club’s generosity with more than $25 million in charitable donations on his watch and set the stage for continuing initiatives under Payne.
But most of all it was Johnson who added 520 yards to an iconic course and tightened it with trees and a second cut to protect it against modern players wielding modern equipment.
Purists howled at the boldness of those changes to 14 of the 18 holes, but time has validated Johnson’s vision as Augusta National retains all the dramatic elements that have made the Masters so popular.
“Every time we thought he made it too hard, it played real well,” Davis Love III said at the time of Johnson’s retirement. “It’s a hard job these days. It’s not something you do for a lifetime. It’s a lot of pressure and a lot going on around you and a lot of second-guessing. It’s kind of like being the president. No matter what you do, half of the people think you did it wrong.”
Johnson, always a man of few words, certainly made his share of public relations mistakes in his most visible role.
Johnson sent letters to several aging past champions urging them to consider retirement and briefly rescinded their lifetime exemptions. He admitted and corrected his mistake, but his message resonated as former champions are more cognitive of when it’s time to step aside and leave the tournament to the younger generations.
Most, however, will always associate Johnson’s name with his uncharacteristically public battle with Martha Burk and her National Council of Women’s Organizations over the club’s right to exclude female members.
The defiant stance never really jibed the liberal example he’d established in his business practice. He was an advocate for minority and women’s rights in industry and at his alma mater, the University of South Carolina. He provided loans to minorities when others wouldn’t, supported black candidates for public office and was on the leading edge of demanding South Carolina remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse.
But Johnson didn’t like being threatened in a letter from Burk demanding the club add female members, and he chose to make a hard stance. Burk tried waging a conventional public relations war against an unconventional opponent and lost.
The showdown delayed any intentions Augusta National might have had to invite female members for a decade before Payne welcomed former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore to the club in 2012.
“This is wonderful news for Augusta National Golf Club, and I could not be more pleased,” Johnson said.
Johnson moved quietly into the background after he retired as the club’s chairman in 2006, but he served as a mentor to Payne.
“He impressed upon me his obsession for constant improvement and a love for Augusta National that will forever remain unmatched,” Payne said. “As the current chairman, I owe an immeasurable debt to Hootie Johnson, and I will thank him every day for what he has meant to me personally as well as to the legacy of Augusta National and the Masters.”
Johnson never liked talking about himself and wasn’t much for elaboration. “You know the story,” he’d often say and usually ended any conversation with a warm “thanks for the visit.”
Hootie Johnson may not be remembered as the most popular chairman in Augusta National history, but generations who continue to enjoy the Masters should be thankful that he made the hard choices to preserve the tournament’s future.