When the story broke Monday that Augusta National had ended a nearly 80-year policy of no female members by inviting Condolezza Rice and South Carolina’s Darla Moore to join, I couldn’t help but smile. Smile, and wonder if we’d hear from Hootie Johnson.
Sure enough, around midday, a statement arrived — exclusively to The State, according to Augusta National officials — from the club’s 81-year-old chairman emeritus.
“This is wonderful news for Augusta National Golf Club and I could not be more pleased,” Johnson said. “Darla Moore is my good friend, and I know she and Condoleezza Rice will enjoy the Club as much as I have.”
Perfect. It was short, simple, to the point and pretty much what I expected.
A longer statement was issued by Johnson’s successor, Billy Payne, who no doubt will get much of the praise for the club’s action, as he should. And there was the predictable statement from Martha Burk, who challenged Augusta National and Johnson on the issue of women members nearly a decade ago and now was quick to claim credit.
With all due respect to Burk, a sharp if strident woman who battled hard for a just cause: Don’t kid yourself. Her protest at the 2003 Masters was a paltry one-and-done sideshow. A year later, no protesters showed up. When’s the last time you even heard her name before now?
Payne, though, is a savvy, politically aware businessman who oversaw the Atlanta Olympics and in six years as Augusta’s chairman has introduced all manner of change, notably in media coverage and exposure of golf to young fans. He’s the perfect new-age leader to check “female members” off his to-do list.
Still, I’ll always believe that behind the scenes, even after stepping down as chairman in 2006, Hootie was doing what he had done throughout his career in banking and then at Augusta: working quietly, under the radar, in his deceptively mild-mannered way, to get things done — the right things.
When Burk-gate exploded in late 2002 after Johnson replied heatedly to her letter urging Augusta National to admit female as members, he was cast as the out-of-touch villain, an international symbol of good-ol’-boy gender bias. That image, though, never jibed with the man I had reported on since his becoming chairman in 1998.
Stubborn? Without question, friend and foe agreed. Someone who didn’t like being told what to do, especially by outsiders? Hoo boy, was that ever on target.
But bigoted? I heard from insiders how Hootie led the movement to invite Ron Townsend — the club’s first black member — in 1990. Those who knew him from business and from projects to improve his home state (including helping end school segregation) couldn’t imagine him clinging to outdated ideas. Too, they noted, he wasn’t necessarily calling the shots at Augusta National; he had 300 other wealthy, powerful, opinionated men to answer to as well.
As chairman, Hootie never backed down from his no-women stance. But he didn’t crow after Burk’s attempts fizzled. “I don’t feel like we won anything,” he said at the 2004 Masters. “I think it’s over, but — it will never be ‘over,’ but I don’t think we’ve won anything.”
Well. Now, he has.
Hootie and Darla Moore are close because they view the world with tough-minded, but civic-minded, similarity. It was Hootie who convinced the Lake City native to give $25 million to USC, resulting in the business school being named for her. But when asked her take on Burk-gate in 2002, Moore told the Wall Street Journal: “I’m as progressive as they come. But some things ought not to be messed with.”
Rice? Johnson during his chairmanship made no secret of his admiration for President George W. Bush’s secretary of state. Both women are cut from the get-things-done mold, and neither will be intimidated by the “old boys club” they’re joining; they long ago proved they can walk the Augusta National walk.
Each is exactly the sort of woman Hootie often would seek out to bolster during his banking days. A friend of mine often told me how Johnson took her under his wing, aiding her business career.
But woe to anyone, female or male, who challenged him on what he believed was right. In 2003-04, Johnson staged the Masters without sponsors, while stressing that the private club had the right to decide who and who not to admit.
He also said that women might be invited to join “in the future.” Translation: when Augusta National was good and ready to do so.
Welcome to the future. I suspect Hootie Johnson helped make it happen now.