When I learned Friday that William “Hootie” Johnson had died at age 86, I was hit with a flood of memories. For eight eventful years, the Columbia resident and Greenwood native cast a huge shadow over the golf world as chairman of Augusta National. When you live in the same town and cover golf, there’s a lot to remember.
And I’ll get to that. But my own history with Hootie – or, as I was more comfortable calling him, “Mr. Johnson” – goes back before he took over at Augusta in 1998. I think it’s worth telling that story first.
In 1992, South Carolina’s football team (for which Johnson played fullback from 1950-52) started 0-5, and USC fans were calling for Gamecocks coach Sparky Woods’ head. One of those was Johnson, who was advocating firing Woods and replacing him with ex-Clemson coach Danny Ford.
I called Johnson and he admitted all that. Six games later, when USC and quarterback Steve Taneyhill concluded a 5-6 comeback season by beating Clemson, I wrote a column saying (paraphrasing here) “fans like Hootie Johnson should stick to their banking and let Woods coach football.”
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Early the next morning, my phone rang at home. It was Johnson, and I prepared for a rant. Instead, he said, “I think you’re right, I feel badly about what I said about Sparky, and what do you think I should do?” I suggested a call to Woods with the same message and sending Woods’ wife a dozen roses. He laughed and said goodbye.
Later that day, Woods called to say Johnson had, indeed, issued a personal apology – and sent his wife TWO dozen roses. I wrote about that, too.
Nearly six years later, on May 1, 1998, Johnson was named the “Master of the Masters,” and from then until he stepped down in 2006, I got to observe his dramatic (and sometimes turbulent) reign up close and personal.
We became friendly, if not friends. I took advantage of a lengthy, largely laudatory profile I wrote when he took over at Augusta to gain occasional access. That didn’t mean I got more inside news than others, but I did get to witness golf history from a seat in his office during interviews.
At a club previously known to adapt only glacially, Johnson oversaw more changes than anyone until current chairman Billy Payne, who on Friday said Johnson’s passing was “leaving behind a legacy of exceptional service to our club, our tournament and the game of golf.”
Johnson always said he was acting in the spirit of Augusta National co-founders Bob Jones and Clifford Roberts – such was his respect for the club’s traditions. But he also put his own stamp on some controversial calls.
Early in his tenure, Johnson and architect Tom Fazio began course alterations that continued through 2006, lengthening and narrowing Augusta National and adding rough (aka “second cut”) to a course that, Johnson believed, had become too easy for modern players and equipment. He said he made those changes to preserve the integrity of the course.
He was criticized by some for “ruining” the historic course, but Johnson believed he was securing the course’s historic playing characteristics, and never wavered.
His other major controversy, in 2002, involved Martha Burk’s attempt to have Augusta National’s then all-male membership add women. Johnson, acting on advice from a “crisis counselor” (he later admitted that was an error), in a letter to Burk’s National Council of Women’s Organizations wrote that her actions were “offensive and coercive,” stressed the club’s private status and infamously said change would not come “at the point of a bayonet.”
The furor lasted several years, and Johnson for a time staged the Masters without TV commercials to remove pressure on sponsors. Even friends from his decades of work in South Carolina civil rights, while questioning his actions, cited his fairness and quest for equality … and, yes, his stubbornness.
In 2013, Augusta National named former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and S.C.-born financier Darla Moore as members. When Johnson issued a statement praising the action, I suspected he did so with a satisfied grin.
Banking was Johnson’s lifelong vocation (fellow banker Hugh McColl once called him “the strategic father of Nationsbank,” now Bank of America), but sports was his passion. When near-sightedness limited the Greenwood High star’s ball-carrying time at USC, he became a fullback – and won the state’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy. He also loved bird hunting and founded a noted shooting club, but golf dominated his sports life.
Born the year Augusta National broke ground (1931), Johnson began playing golf there with his father, Dewey, in the 1950s. He first attended the Masters in 1935, when he was 4, joined the club in the late 1960s and was vice-president from 1975 until becoming chairman. Once a single-digit handicap, his career-best round on the course was 1-over par 73.
“He loves that place (Augusta) so much,” then-Richland-Lexington Cultural Council director Dot Ryall said in 1998. “Of everything he’s done (in business),” being named Masters’ chairman “probably makes him the happiest.”
In 2012, Johnson, then Augusta’s chairman emeritus, was named to the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame, and I interviewed him for that. He praised Payne’s leadership at Augusta National (“we did a lot of things; the golf ball and the club demanded it”), and was a fan of that year’s Masters’ winner, Bubba Watson (“he’s fun to watch, and his being a Georgia Bulldog helps, with Payne and me”).
Of his legacy, in sports and business, he said, “I’ve been very blessed, in every way.” Payne on Friday called Johnson “a mentor,” and said, “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.”
I’ll remember good things Johnson did at Augusta, others that could’ve been done better. Mostly, I’ll remember a man who rose as high in golf as one can, who stood by his decisions – but wasn’t afraid to admit he was wrong.
Two dozen roses: perfect.