WASHINGTON: William “Hootie” Johnson, the former chairman of Augusta National Golf Club best known for a 2002 feud over admitting female members to the home of the Masters, died Friday. He was 86.
Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, who followed Johnson as chairman in 2006, announced the passing of his predecessor, a former Bank of America executive committee chairman who oversaw major changes at the club and the tournament.
“At all times, Hootie selflessly served as my personal mentor on matters here at Augusta National and the Masters, as well as in business and life,” Payne said. “He impressed upon me his obsession for constant improvement and a love for Augusta National that will forever remain unmatched.
“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.
“In the days ahead, we will privately honor the memory of Hootie Johnson, stand with his beautiful family and celebrate his extraordinary life.”
Johnson’s fame reached a peak in 2002 when Martha Burk, then chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, pressed for the admission of women to what had been an all-male club. She saw that as sexist.
Johnson argued the issue was about the rights of any private club to do as it saw fit and despite a protest across the street from Augusta National during the 2003 Masters, women were not admitted as members during Johnson’s tenure.
It was not until 2012 that Payne welcomed Augusta National’s first women members, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rica and businesswoman Darla Moore.
Johnson was chairman at Augusta National from 1998 to 2006 and guided two revamps of the famed course, what some called “Tiger-proofing” in the wake of Tiger Woods’s record-shattering victory in the 1997 Masters.
The course was lengthened and a “second cut” added to the once pristine driving areas, altering the look of the famed layout among the Georgia pines known for its undulating greens.
Johnson permitted 18-hole television coverage of the Masters for the first time and made major changes to qualifying procedures for the year’s first major tournament, an April tradition.
“During his eight-year tenure, we always admired his genuine and unrelenting respect for the traditions and vision of the club and tournament established by our founders, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts,” Payne said.
“He boldly directed numerous course improvements to ensure that Augusta National would always represent the very finest test of golf... 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.” — AFP