Hootie Johnson, best known for his tenure as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, was buried this week in Columbia, South Carolina.
Upon Johnson’s death, the media failed to acknowledge the role Johnson played in American history. As much as anyone, it was he who showed his fellow citizens how to defy the tyranny of political correctness and prevail. The story deserves retelling.
In 1998, Johnson, a successful banker, was named chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, host of the celebrated Masters Golf Tournament.
In 1999, Johnson oversaw the Masters for the first time. For the first time, too, veteran sportswriter Christine Brennan posed the question that would soon enough come to consume, if not the nation exactly, at least the New York Times.
“If you wouldn’t mind telling us,” asked Brennan, “how many African-Americans there are at Augusta National and how many woman members?”
Always gracious, Johnson answered, “Well, that’s a club matter, ma’am, and all club matters are private.” In fact, the club had three black members.
Black golfers had been playing in the tournament for 25 years, and the multiracial Tiger Woods had won the tournament two years prior.
No woman had ever played in the tournament. No women belonged to the club. The next day Brennan approached Johnson and asked, “So why don’t you have a woman member?” He kindly responded, “We will, in due time.”
Brennan kept after Johnson for several years. In 2002, Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO), read one of Brennan’s articles and decided it was time to take Hootie down.
“Hootie Johnson,” she told her colleagues while mocking Johnson’s drawl, “ah’m a-gonna wraaaht yew uh letter.” That she did. In the letter, she tried to bully Johnson into changing club policy.
Johnson decided to take the battle to the enemy. To Burk, he sent a short response. To the news media, he sent a press release so forceful that it negated the news value of anything Burk might say in response.
“We will not be bullied, threatened, or intimidated,” Johnson wrote in the release. “We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case. There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our club, but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet.”
Lest Burk think him naïve, Johnson described NCWO’s likely strategy and let her know Augusta National was fully prepared to subvert it.
”We expect such a campaign would attempt to depict the members of our club as insensitive bigots and coerce the sponsors of the Masters to disassociate themselves under threat, real or implied, of boycotts and other economic pressures,” said Johnson.
The New York Times jumped into the fray in July 2002, just a few days after Johnson issued the press release. Burk, who had grown used to getting her way, was still in shock.
“He went ballistic,” she told the Times. ”He has ended any possibility of direct communication. My choice is to communicate with others, and that may include sponsors of the Masters and individual members of the club.”
Before the 2002 golf season ended, Johnson thwarted Burk’s best line of attack by dropping the contracted television sponsors of the 2003 tournament – IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup – as a way of protecting them from harassment.
The sponsors liked the move because it saved them from a no-win decision. Fans liked it because there would be no TV commercials during the Masters.
Thwarted, Burk went after the broadcaster. “We expect to have a conversation with CBS,” she told the Associated Press. CBS had paid too much for the rights to yield. A network spokeswomen shot back, “CBS will broadcast the Masters next year.”
Undaunted, Burk predicted the Masters would “fade as a major tournament” if Johnson did not yield on the issue. He was not about to.
In fact, he seemed to enjoy taunting Burk with the progressives’ own pro-choice rhetoric. After allowing that the club might very well admit a woman in some distant future, Johnson added slyly, “In the meantime, we hold dear our tradition and our constitutional right to choose.”
Burk had one major ally in the fight, the New York Times. Before the battle was through, the Times would run more than 100 articles or columns on the subject.
As the 2003 tournament approached, the Times ran articles on the Burk jihad very nearly every day, often two a day. They did no good.
Burk and the Times kept beating the drum, but Hootie chose not to march to it. After two years, the heat had subsided sufficiently that he re-opened the tournament to sponsors and had no trouble finding all he needed.
One women who had no issue with Augusta’s policies was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. An avid golfer, Rice was asked by Golf Digest in 2011 whether she thought Augusta had an obligation to open its membership to women.
“No. I actually don’t,” said Rice. “These are issues for the membership. I’ve got a lot of good friends at Augusta who are really good people. And it’s really up to them.”
A year later, Augusta National asked Rice to join the club. Feminist groups were not lining up to award Rice for her pioneering role in breaking the notorious “grass ceiling.”
In fact, there wasn’t much love forthcoming from progressives anywhere. Two years later, the faculty council at Rutgers University made enough of a stink over Rice’s scheduled appearance as commencement speaker that she felt compelled to back out.
That was OK. It was May. The Azaleas were in bloom, and the good old boys at Augusta were much more welcoming.
Media wishing to interview Jack Cashill, please contact [email protected].