It's fun to watch the effect Hootie Johnson has when he visits
the administration building at Augusta National Golf Club.
Office workers straighten in their chairs and shuffle papers.
Secretaries pat their hair and collect themselves before
venturing into the hallway. George W. Bush could climb in a
window with a bag of toys and not create half the buzz. But
then, Bush is only President of the United States. Hootie
Johnson is chairman of Augusta National.
I witnessed Johnson's clout two weeks ago when I stopped by the
National to look at the nine holes that were lengthened last
summer to keep up with recent advances in equipment and player
skills. Communications director Glenn Greenspan and I were
shooting the breeze in his office when the chairman popped in
unexpectedly and sat down. "Well," Johnson said, "what did you
Gratified that the man who runs the Masters would solicit my
opinion, I gave the renovation an unqualified thumbs-up. "But
what lies ahead?" I asked. "What do you do 10 years from now when
players are driving it 360 yards and hitting wedges to the 11th
Johnson nodded. "That's the real issue, isn't it?"
Now I paraphrase, because it was a conversation, not an
interview. Johnson said that Augusta National could no longer
wait for the governing bodies of golf to protect the integrity
of vintage tournament courses. He said that something had to be
done to limit how far Tour pros hit the ball. And if the U.S.
Golf Association, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St.
Andrews, the PGA of America and the PGA Tour were so terrified
of litigation that they couldn't act in the best interests of
the game...well, maybe a club in Georgia would have to take the
That's when I realized that Johnson hadn't popped in to get my
opinion of the rebuilt fairway bunker on the 18th hole. Our
little chat marked the opening of a campaign to wrest power from
golf's governing bodies and commercial interests and to restore
some rules-making authority to its original source, the clubs.
Proof that Johnson is prepared to fight for his cause came last
week when he told USA Today that Augusta National, at 7,270
yards, can't take another major lengthening. "If technology
brings about change in the next several years like we've seen in
the past several years," Johnson said, "then we'll have to
consider restrictions on equipment specifications for the
Masters tournament." Translation: Tiger and Phil might have to
play the 2003 Masters with a Masters-approved, limited-flight
Can Johnson do that? Sure. The Masters is a private,
invitational tournament, not a commercially sponsored Tour
event. If Johnson wants to, he can invite New York City firemen
instead of Tour players, dress them in striped jumpsuits and
have them tee off with cricket bats. By the same token the Tour
players could decide that their equipment contracts mean more to
them than a chance to win the green jacket using a generic ball.
They could decline their Masters invitations. (For frightening
precedent, review the recent history of the once glorious
Indianapolis 500.) Johnson knows he's gambling with the future
of the Masters if he goes it alone.
Except he isn't really alone. Johnson meets often with the
leaders of other venerable clubs, and most of them share his view
that unbridled technology threatens the game. "What's right is
right," says Vickers Companies chairman Jack Vickers, who has
spent millions on land acquisition and renovations at Castle
Pines Golf Club outside Denver, site of the International. "The
survival of these great courses means more, in the long run, than
the bottom lines of a few equipment companies."
The real question, as Johnson and the other clubmen see it, is
not how far a ball should fly but who decides how far a ball
should fly. The R&A and the USGA have had that job since the
1890s, when they accepted responsibility for the game's
governance. Unfortunately both bodies now quake at the idea of
making and enforcing their own rules.
Johnson isn't afraid. He wasn't specific about his plans last
week, but Augusta National could require that manufacturers
produce a ball that meets Masters specifications, or the club
could manufacture its own logoed ball for tournament play. If
Johnson is feeling coltish, the 2003 Masters could be played with
balls recovered from Rae's Creek in 2002.
I left Augusta certain of only one thing: If those who should
resolve the distance crisis don't resolve the distance crisis,
Johnson will resolve it for them.