William W. “Hootie” Johnson, who oversaw major changes to Augusta National Golf Club’s layout and held firm in defending the club’s membership policies, died July 14. He was 86.
Johnson served as chairman of Augusta National and the Masters Tournament 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.
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.”
Johnson was born in Augusta on Feb. 16, 1931. He got the nickname “Hootie” from a childhood playmate when he was 5.
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.
Johnson and his brother took over the family bank in Greenwood 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.
In addition to his changes to the course, 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.
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.