The news release to announce that Hootie Johnson, a Columbian, would become the next chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament prompted a shrug from the then editor in charge of The State sports department.
He ordered the information capsulized into six paragraphs, wrote a one-column headline and placed the story on page 6C – beneath the report on the results of the Nike (now Web.com) Tour tournament in Florence.
“What’s the big deal?” he asked.
Well, Hootie Johnson always has been a “big deal” – in business, in philanthropy, in public service and in sports, and now he would be taking over one of the most influential positions in golf.
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That scenario from 1998 comes to mind after learning of his death Friday at age 86 and reminds what an incredible influence he left.
His achievements have been well chronicled, and never to be forgotten is his contribution to golf. Even 11 years after relinquishing the chairmanship of Augusta National and the Masters, the changes he made and the direction he provided still resonate.
He, more than anyone, made sure the Masters would remain worthy of “major” designation. “Keeping the course current,” he liked to say.
But “keeping the course current” involved change, and change went down hard in the pre-Johnson days at Augusta National, a club that drips in tradition dating to its founding in the 1930s. Alterations came slowly, if at all.
No one had more respect for those traditions that Johnson, but he also realized the game, like everything else, had changed, and those who do not adjust get left behind.
A wise philosopher once noted that if you aren’t improving, you’re losing ground. Along those lines, if you aren’t improving, it’s your own fault. Those sound like the credos he brought to Augusta and the Masters.
Consider the big picture. Change had to come to the golf course to combat the advance in equipment technology and stronger, more physically fit players.
Johnson’s announcement in 2001 – three years into his tenure – hit the golf world like an unexpected sonic boom. First, Augusta National did not reveal action in advance. Second, the golf course would be altered. And here he was talking about plans for the future for one of the game’s most revered layouts.
Never mind that the course has evolved through the years. The nines had been reversed and the 16th hole completely rebuilt. Grasses on the greens had been changed. Bunkers and tees moved, and no one found out until tournament time.
But Johnson and architect Tom Fazio foresaw the need for significant alterations to keep the Masters from becoming another of the PGA Tour’s cookie-cutter events.
“I think any of us probably hate to see people hitting sand wedges into 425-yard par 4s,” he said.
The trend he started ensured Augusta National wouldn’t become obsolete.
Johnson’s record of achievement in business illustrates he understood the result of being pro-active, and he brought the plan to Augusta National.
Critics of the course change included Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, and their opinions had to be difficult to ignore. But Johnson remained firm and the layout eventually stretched to almost 7,500 yards. Add strategic bunkers and trees, and the layout grew teeth. The additional distance turned the 18th hole into a pushover for a finishing hole to a snarling beast.
His stated goal: make sure the players of today are hitting the same clubs into greens that Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie visualized in designing the course that opened in 1934 and that Palmer and Nicklaus hit in their primes.
That likely will never happen; on his way to winning the 2017 Masters, Sergio Garcia his an 8-iron for his second shot onto the par-5 15th hole green and made eagle. But at least that’s better than Tiger Woods and the other bombers hitting 9-irons and wedges into par 5s.
Gary Player, an original critic, quickly came to accept the changes mandated by Johnson, and eventually Nicklaus did, too.
Johnson didn’t stop there.
One of his first moves strengthened the field by using the Official World Golf Rankings to help determine some qualifiers.
Perhaps his most appreciated change – he added television coverage to include all 18 holes. Showing all 18 holes began for the final round in 2002 and has expanded.
“It takes us a long time to get around to making a decision,” Johnson said to laughter from the media in announcing the expanded television coverage.
Talking about possible change to the course in advance or outlining a new approach to television coverage had never happened before Johnson took the Augusta National reins.
In previous years, players discovered new features in practice rounds. Nicklaus said he once received a stare of defiance from chairman Clifford Roberts after asking about yardage on a relocated tee, and Sam Snead once noted that officials altered the first tee or moved the clubhouse. But yardages on the scorecards had not changed.
Mistakes? Sure. No one’s has a perfect record, and his death will no doubt stir memories about his ill-advised letter in response to a call for women members at Augusta National.
Johnson wiffed with his fiery reaction to Martha Burk regarding the admission of women to the private club and no doubt wished he sent a polite letter rather than his “point-of-a-bayonet” tirade.
He missed, too, on his heavy-handed handling of withdrawing lifetime invitations to former champions. But discussions with Palmer and Nicklaus led to a reasonable agreement. And eliminating an automatic place in the field for PGA Tour tournament winners was a mistake that has since been corrected.
No matter what, Johnson’s daring to change set a precedent for the future. For those who claimed only the long hitters would thrive, consider that Zach Johnson and Jordan Spieth have won on the longer course. Tim Clark has finished second. William McGirt stayed close into the final round this year. That’s the golf course he left.
Looking back at a life well lived, a scenario from the Players comes to mind.
In 2001, Tiger Woods hit his putt on TPC Sawgrass’ treacherous 17th green from a spot where others had four-putted. NBC analyst Johnny Miller asked, “How’s that look?” Gary Koch responded, “Better than most.” The ball broke toward the hole and Koch said again, “Better than most.” Finally, the putt dropped for an unlikely birdie and Koch’s final and most enthusiastic, “Better than most!”
In that context, consider the life of Hootie Johnson, a person of action and vision in all endeavors – the banking business, public service and overseer of one of golf’s treasures.
Think about his 86 years and, yes, a life better than most.