- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2002

You simply can't pigeonhole William "Hootie" Johnson.
Martha Burk of the National Council of Women's Organizations would like to paint the 71-year-old chairman of Augusta National Golf Club as a stereotypical remnant of the Old South, a closed-minded patriarchal pillar as immutable and representative of the plantation mentality as a white column.
But Mr. Johnson's past indicates exactly the opposite, leading some close to Augusta National to speculate that Ms. Burk's aggressive criticism of Mr. Johnson and the Georgia club's male-only membership has set back her cause by alienating one of the club's most progressive thinkers.
"In my opinion, Mr. Hootie Johnson might have already been searching for just the right women when all this flap started," said Robbie Williams, the widow of a former Augusta National member and co-author of "Gentlemen Only," a book about the club written from a woman's perspective. "He was always known as one of the most liberal members at Augusta National, and he might have been sympathetic to this cause if it had been handled differently.
"But this Burk woman made a grave error when she decided to threaten Augusta National. The National doesn't rearrange itself to suit societal circumstances. And neither Mr. Johnson nor anyone else there is going to respond positively to external prodding. If they ever have a woman at Augusta National, it will be done from the inside."
William Woodward Johnson was born in Augusta on Feb. 16, 1931, the same year that Bobby Jones began construction of the course on the site of an abandoned nursery. Mr. Johnson attended his first Masters tournament in 1935, the year that Gene Sarazen immortalized the event by making a double eagle on the 15th hole en route to victory.
After attending the University of South Carolina on a football scholarship, Mr. Johnson returned to the family banking business. When his father died in 1965, he became the youngest bank president in South Carolina, taking the reins of Bankers Trust at 34. He shepherded the bank through a series of successful mergers. When he retired in 2001, Mr. Johnson was the chairman of the executive committee of Bank of America.
But if Mr. Johnson's career was defined by financial success, it was also dotted with political and social activism. He was a Democratic member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1957 to 1958. He spent the politically turbulent 1960s and 1970s as an ardent supporter of the civil rights movement in South Carolina.
Before desegregation, he convinced the state to finance an undergraduate business program at South Carolina State, then an all-black institution. After three protesting students at South Carolina State were killed by state troopers in 1968, he headed a committee that oversaw the desegregation of the state's public schools.
"It was nothing more or less than doing the right thing," said Mr. Johnson in a 2000 interview with Golf Digest. "It was the most satisfying public service work I've ever done."
In 1970, he headed a committee that helped crumple the color barrier in the state's General Assembly, pushing for the election of candidates who became the first blacks in South Carolina's legislature since the turn of the century.
In 1971, his bank became the first in the state to appoint a black to its board of directors. He co-founded the Columbia, S.C., chapter of the Urban League with local activist Elliott Franks and later served on the board of the national Urban League under Vernon Jordan.
"He was one of the most socially progressive businessmen in the state," Mr. Franks said. "These people snickering at Hootie have got it all wrong. He's a man of unimpeachable principles. Hootie Johnson is no sexist."
Mr. Johnson appointed women to management positions at Bankers Trust before the "glass ceiling" became a hot-button issue. Four years ago, he persuaded New York investment banker and South Carolina native Darla Moore to contribute $25 million to the University of South Carolina business school. He then persuaded the administration to honor Mrs. Moore by making it the first business school in the nation named after a woman.
And just about the time Ms. Burk was firing her opening salvo at Augusta National, sending a mid-June letter demanding a change in the club's membership policies, Mr. Johnson was hosting the South Carolina women's golf team at Augusta National as a reward for their title-winning season.
"I keep seeing these press releases about what a great advocate he is for racial equality, as if that buys him a pass on sexual discrimination," Ms. Burk said. "I don't think it does, and I don't think the majority of Americans thinks it does. I don't really know what to think about Hootie, and it's really not my business to analyze him. My business is to get the club integrated."
Like Mrs. Williams, some close to Augusta National think Mr. Johnson was working on just that before Ms. Burk made the club's private affairs a matter of public debate. Mr. Johnson, still recovering in Columbia, from a September heart surgery, has not spoken publicly on the subject since his July rebuttal to Ms. Burk in which he said the club would not be "bullied" into admitting a woman "at the point of a bayonet."
Ms. Burk's organization has targeted the PGA Tour and its sponsors in attempt to get them to pressure Augusta National into changing its membership policy. The tour and its sponsors declined. Ms. Burk also demanded that CBS not broadcast the Masters next year. CBS refused. She has said she will ask players to boycott the tournament next year.
If Mr. Johnson already was quietly pursuing gender equity at Augusta National, it wouldn't be the first time he had been an instrument of social change at the club. As the club's vice president in 1990, Johnson is thought to have been the driving force behind the admission of Augusta National's first black member, Ronald Townsend.
"It was not a popular [decision] but was to some degree a matter of necessity," said one member, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. "Hootie placated a lot of folks to make that happen. He is both subtle and strong, which is a crucial combination there."
When Mr. Johnson was admitted to the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1999, friend and fellow banker John G.P. Boatwright traced a similar picture of Mr. Johnson's leadership style.
"So many of us tend to seek solutions as torchbearers righteously proclaiming the logic of our position with trumpets and cymbals," Mr. Boatwright wrote. "But Hootie knows how to quietly sow the seeds of his position among those who could make it grow."
So, was Hootie silently sowing the seeds of female membership at Augusta National before Ms. Burk's intrusion?
"Probably," said I.S. Leevy Johnson, a Columbia attorney and one of the three black men Hootie helped get elected to the South Carolina state legislature in 1970.
"I'll bet he's a fair sight more progressive than most of their members, and so it would take some time and convincing," Mr. Leevy Johnson said. "But that letter set him off. You can't intimidate Hootie, but you can rile him. Ms. Burk has clearly done that, and I think her involvement has slowed down the whole process. Hootie can be very stubborn."
Said Ms. Burk in response to that claim: "I think that's a completely spurious argument. If they had been moving toward admitting a woman like they say they were, why didn't they just tell me that privately? I contacted them privately. That would certainly have been the end of it. Or certainly the end of it for six months or so, and then I would have checked in maybe with a how-are-you-doing phone call."
But it seems Mr. Johnson and the membership at Augusta National don't cotton to "how-are-you-doing" calls from strangers inquiring into private business.
"The greatest desecration that could come from this situation would be if somebody on the outside was able to change club policy," Mrs. Williams said. "That would rend the fundamental fabric of the place. I just don't think Hootie would allow that.
This telemarketer approach might be Ms. Burk's style, but in the South it still qualifies as exceedingly brash and presumptuous. And irrespective of whether he's sympathetic to the idea of admitting women to Augusta National, Mr. Johnson is now digging in to defend his principles and the club's autonomy with the same tenacity that made him the Atlantic Coast Conference's best blocking back in 1952.
"He wasn't a superstar talent but, boy, was he a bulldog," said former South Carolina quarterback Johnny Gramling, who remembers playing with Johnson. "He just got after you and hustled his tail off. If you wanted to get run over, get in Hootie's way."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide