July 15 (UPI) — William “Hootie” Johnson, the former chairman of Augusta National Golf Club who was at the center of a national controversy over the group’s refusal to admit female members, died Friday. He was 86.
Augusta National announced Johnson’s death, but gave no cause for it. Johnson had suffered from heart problems in recent years, The Washington Post reported.
Johnson’s nine-year tenure as chairman of Augusta National, one of the nation’s most prestigious and selective sports clubs, included some revolutionary changes — and one very memorable refusal to modernize.
When, in the late 1990s, a generation of powerful young golfers led by Tiger Woods began shredding one of the most challenging golf courses in the world, Johnson bucked custom at Augusta and ordered a major overhaul to address players’ increasing dominance at the Masters.
The result was a course much longer from tee to green with longer cuts of rough that put a premium on accuracy, not just the distance players can hit the ball. The overhaul was known in the golf world as “Tiger-proofing” Augusta.
Johnson is also credited with lifting the veil on television coverage of the Masters, doing away with the longstanding custom cameras on several of the 18 holes, which offered players a respite from the every-shot analysis they face today.
But when it came to altering the rules governing Augusta National Golf Club, the group that puts on golf’s premier tournament every spring, Johnson dug in his heels.
In 2002, Martha Burk, then chairwoman of the Washington-based National Council of Women’s Organizations, publicly questioned why Augusta National had no female members. She called on Johnson, a former banker from South Carolina who had a history of supporting the Civil Rights movement in the South, to admit women.
He refused, and a public feud — and national debate — ensued.
“We will not be bullied, threatened, or intimidated,” he said in a statement. “There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours, and not at the point of a bayonet.”
Burk responded, saying Johnson and the other Augusta members lived in “a white-male, privileged bubble.”
Burk organized a boycott of Masters advertisers and the companies run by its 300-plus members. Johnson responded by converting the Masters to a commercial-free broadcast for two years, rendering Burk’s advertising boycott moot.
Johnson’s all-male club endured, with Augusta still refusing to admit women members as of 2006, the year he stepped down as chairman.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Augusta National announced it had admitted its first two female members, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and Darla Moore, a financier from Johnson’s native South Carolina.
Unlike during the Burk feud, Johnson greeted the news of the new members warmly.
“This is wonderful news for Augusta National Golf Club and I could not be more pleased,” he said at the time.
Johnson is survived by his wife of 65 years, the former Pierrine Baker, four daughters, 10 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.