Master Of His Universe Augusta National chairman HOOTIE JOHNSON is a private man embroiled in a very public tussle, and he's conducting himself--for good or ill--like a Southern gentleman

April 06, 2003

All I had to do was say the right things at this press
conference, but I won't do that. One of the few freedoms that we
have as human beings that cannot be taken away from us is the
freedom to assent to what is true and to deny what is false.
Nothing you can give me is worth surrendering that freedom for.
At this moment I'm a man with complete tranquility.
--CHARLIE CROKER A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe

Last June William Woodward Johnson--Hootie to his many friends and
critics--received a letter from Martha Burk, a Washington
political activist. She was writing to the chairman of Augusta
National Golf Club to suggest that he add a woman or two to its
membership.

A couple of days after receiving Burk's missive, Johnson was
still chewing on a response when he had lunch with Robert McNair,
the former South Carolina governor, who is a friend and mentor.
"He wanted to make his case clear," recalls McNair. "He intended
to put the situation to rest. Despite all his work in the
political arena, he didn't foresee a strong public reaction."
Johnson continued to discuss Burk's letter with a small kitchen
cabinet of fellow members. "People think this was a knee-jerk
reaction," says an Augusta National employee, "but the Chairman
spent three weeks carefully considering a response." (Like
Sinatra and Mao, Johnson is referred to as the Chairman by his
supplicants.) Burk's letter was dated June 12. Johnson's public
response didn't come until July 9, and in between he took the
unprecedented step of bringing in an outsider for counsel, in
this case a Washington public relations consultant whose identity
is closely guarded but who is known to move in the same circles
as Burk and is familiar with the politics of protest. "The
recommendation was that we fight back," says the club insider,
"that we set the agenda on the debate."

Johnson, in his day a hard-nosed fullback at the University of
South Carolina, bulled straight ahead. His opening salvo,
e-mailed to 80 or so media outlets, was, at the very least, a
gross miscalculation. "We do not intend to become a trophy in
their display case," Johnson wrote of Burk and the National
Council of Women's Organizations. "There may well come a day when
women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable
will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet."

That last zinger immediately entered the golf lexicon, and
Johnson--along with the club--has been in the news ever since. As
the endgame to his feud with Burk approaches with next week's
Masters, Johnson has become a polarizing figure who has aroused
the passions of everyone from the Reverend Jesse Jackson to J.J.
Harper, the Imperial Wizard of the American White Knights, a
one-man splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan, who both announced
plans to be on hand for the tournament. (Jackson will be
protesting Hootie, while Harper will be protesting Jackson's
protest.)

Johnson's manifesto did set the agenda for the ensuing debate,
but not in the fashion that he had anticipated. His overheated
rhetoric was immediately amplified by innumerable scolding
newspaper columns. Hootie's childhood nickname (and a drawl
thicker than U.S. Open rough) suddenly became the jumping-off
point for over-the-top caricatures of a retrograde good ol' boy,
kind of like Tom Wolfe's fictional Croker, a college football
star born "below the gnat line" whose travails in the world of
high finance serve as a meditation on the tension between the Old
South and the New, a theme writ large in Johnson's story.

The 72-year-old Johnson has displayed confounding contradictions
throughout a blockbuster banking career and as a political
kingmaker in South Carolina. Johnson championed the removal of
the Confederate flag from atop the state capitol, in his adopted
hometown of Columbia, but he staunchly defends his favorite lunch
spot a couple of blocks away, the exclusive Palmetto Club, which
made national headlines in the late 1980s for its all-white
membership. He was one of the driving forces behind Augusta
National's admission of its first black member in 1990--"because
it was the right thing to do," he says--but Johnson, a past
recipient of the B'nai B'rith outstanding citizen award, is also
comfortable with his membership at Columbia's Forest Lake Club,
an old-money enclave that has no blacks, and until recently no
Jews, among its 1,000 members. He also belongs to Spring Valley,
a more open-minded place that was founded mostly by new-money
types who couldn't get into Forest Lake. The short drive between
the two golf courses serves as a metaphor for Johnson's fitful
journey from Old South to New, from the culture of exclusivity to
the politics of inclusion. That Johnson can have a foot in both
of these worlds seems only natural to him, if not to everybody
else.

"I don't think it's a contradiction at all," Johnson said in late
March during an interview in his office at Augusta National, his
first public comments in months. "You know, I have stood up for
doing the right thing my whole life, but not to be a member at
Forest Lake because it doesn't have any Jews? To suggest it's a
contradiction to my moral integrity, I'm offended. All you have
to do is look at the details of my life to know what I stand for."

These details are vexing. How can a man who has worked so
doggedly for diversity in the public sphere be so comfortable
with the barriers erected by his private clubs? "There's
something we call 'old hat' in South Carolina," says U.S. Rep.
James Clyburn, one of many black politicians Johnson has backed.
"This state is very traditional when it comes to gathering
places. People tend to want to socialize with certain types of
people. Yet we expect to be judged by our public lives, not what
we do in private."

In his failure to reconcile the divide between the public and the
private, Johnson is like another Southern leader who recently
generated headlines, Mississippi senator Trent Lott. (They have
also become linked in the public imagination because of an
arresting physical resemblance; the Jan. 20, 2003, issue of
FORTUNE printed pictures of Lott and Johnson side by side above
the caption SEPARATED AT BIRTH?) Lott's downfall was saying
something in public--that the country would have been better off
if Strom Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948 on a
segregationist platform--that he could have gotten away with in
private.

In the ensuing media uproar Lott chose not to fight but to
capitulate, and his subsequent humiliation and loss of power has
not been lost on Johnson. He is a voracious reader of
biographies; Jefferson, John Adams and Teddy Roosevelt are among
the figures that most intrigue him, but when Johnson is asked to
name his historical hero he cites two--Lincoln and Truman. "They
could both make the tough decisions regardless of the heat," he
says.

There is something heroic about a man resolutely standing up for
what he believes, especially in the face of a media firestorm and
the searing forces of political correctness. Johnson has been
unmoved by pressure to admit a woman member and end the circus.
"We will prevail," he says, "because we are right."

Croker was the kind who liked to be known as Charlie, not
Charles, because it was earthier.... He liked to feel Down
Home, elemental.
--A Man in Full

Hootie Johnson and Augusta National were born in the same town in
the same year, 1931, and four years later he was a spectator at
the second Masters, though he has no recollection of Gene
Sarazen's famous double eagle on the 15th hole during the final
round. (Hootie picked up his nickname from a childhood playmate;
his older brother, Wellsman, went by Bubba.) Hootie's father,
Dewey, was a three handicapper, and he taught his son the game at
Augusta Country Club, a family-friendly outpost that abuts its
more famous neighbor, the National.

When Hootie was 11, his father--who began his banking career out
of high school as a lowly runner--headed a group of investors who
purchased a small bank in Greenwood; he then moved the family to
that mill town in northwest South Carolina. It was there that
Hootie's life took on all the flourishes of the Norman Rockwell
oeuvre. At Greenwood High he grew into a devilishly handsome
football star, and the son of the bank president soon began going
steady with one of the most popular girls in school, Pierrine
Baker, the raven-haired granddaughter of one of Greenwood's most
progressive mayors.

Dewey and his wife, Mabel, were community leaders with an
activist bent, and dinner conversation in the Johnson household
often veered into politics. Dewey was a color-blind Democrat, and
his convictions were never clearer than during the '48
presidential election, when Thurmond and his third-party
Dixiecrat platform easily carried the state. Dewey cast his vote
for Truman.

If Johnson learned social responsibility at home, football taught
him a leather-helmeted toughness. Greenwood High's legendary
coach, J.W. (Pinky) Babb, was a taskmaster obsessed with
fundamentals, and he brought out the best in Johnson. Described
in the Greenwood Index-Journal as the "blond wheelhorse of the
Emerald backfield," the "crazy-legged" tailback led Greenwood to
the state championship in 1948, and during his four-year career
he scored 43 touchdowns, two on runs of 90 yards or more. He was
as ornery as he was elusive. During the 1946 season he was kicked
out of two games for fighting.

It was at the University of South Carolina that Johnson suffered
the first significant setback of his charmed life. He played
behind talented upperclassmen until his junior year, and late
that season he lost his starting job, in part because of a
tendency to fumble. Johnson, however, was not the quitting type.
He volunteered to move to fullback, and during his senior year,
in 1952, he earned the Jacobs Blocking Trophy, given to the best
collegiate blocker in the state. "Hootie just loved to run people
over," says an old college teammate, quarterback Johnny Gramling.

Following graduation Johnson (and his bride, Pierrine, whom he
had married in the summer of 1951) moved back to Greenwood to
work for his father at the bank. Dewey died in 1961, and four
years later Hootie became the youngest bank president in the
state. Through a series of shrewd mergers and acquisitions the
Bank of Greenwood would soon morph into Bankers Trust and grow
into a regional power. Entrenched in Columbia's ruling class, he
began to dabble in the highest level of politics in South
Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union in advance of
the Civil War and, in the wake of the civil rights movement, one
of the last to integrate.

Johnson saw the tumultuous racial politics of the day in the
black-and-white terms of his father: Electing African-Americans
to public office was the right thing to do. In 1970 Hootie threw
his weight behind a handful of black candidates, and when the
votes were tallied, James Felder, Herbert Fielding and I.S. Leevy
Johnson became the first blacks to be elected to South Carolina's
General Assembly since 1902. Says I.S. Leevy Johnson, "I can
still hear those campaign radio ads in my head, and they would
always end, 'Paid for by the Democratic Party of South Carolina,
Hootie Johnson, treasurer.' Those were the days of a lot of empty
rhetoric, but Hootie put his name on the line for us." (And that
name was always Hootie, not William. "He thought it made him more
approachable, and he's right," says I.S. Leevy Johnson.)

Hootie quickly grew into what Governor McNair calls "one of the
most enlightened, progressive citizens in the history of the
state." Johnson accepted a post on the board of directors of the
Urban League. He helped found the Cultural Council of Richland
and Lexington Counties and later donated $250,000, which was used
to fund a series of arts projects. In the early 1980s Bankers
Trust became the first statewide bank to appoint a woman to its
board of directors.

One of Johnson's few public dustups came in 1978, when he parted
ways with the Democratic party because of his role on the finance
committee for the reelection campaign of Senator Thurmond, whose
switch from Democrat to Republican 14 years earlier had begun a
seismic shift in the South's political landscape. Johnson had a
strong friendship with Thurmond, and in Hootie's universe loyalty
is among the most prized attributes. Despite the protest of other
Democratic leaders, he refused to disassociate himself from
Thurmond's campaign. "So they kicked me out of the Democratic
party just like that," Johnson says, "and I've been an
independent ever since."

Others remember it differently, including Clyburn, currently
serving his fourth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. "I
recall quite vividly during a meeting a young lady saying she
thought that Hootie's public support for Strom was improper.
Hootie resigned his post because of this one voice of dissent,
and he did so in a huff. Hootie has always been too thin-skinned.
And he is stubborn. When he makes up his mind, it's like he's
stuck in the mud."

Surveying Johnson's public life, a clear portrait emerges. The
smashmouth football player had become a decisive, fearless
leader, with a heightened sense of right and wrong. By 1998 he
had shaped the future of South Carolina and was chairing the
executive committee of Bank of America, the country's biggest
bank. He was 67 and should have been thinking about a quiet
retirement. Instead, he took the job as the chairman of Augusta
National.

Quail! The aristocrat of American wild game! It wasn't sufficient
to be rich enough. No, this was the South. You had to be man
enough to deserve a quail plantation. You had to be able to deal
with man and beast, in every form they came in, with your wits,
your bare hands, and your gun.
--A Man in Full

One of the few times the public catches a glimpse of the chairman
of Augusta National is during the annual green jacket ceremony
that follows the conclusion of the Masters. Johnson has revealed
little of himself during these ritual exchanges. In the glare of
the TV lights he is all measured tones and Southern manners. He
is far more at ease in private, engaged in manly pursuits with
his golf and hunting buddies.

Johnson is a skilled golfer with a career-low round of 73 at
Augusta National, but surgeries on both knees have robbed him of
much of his power. (Croker: "Football had left him with a
banged-up knee, that had turned arthritic.... He didn't associate
that with age, however. It was an honorable wound of war.")
Johnson compensates by bloodlessly negotiating for strokes as if
it were another of his bank mergers, though the stakes are
typically a $2 Nassau or $5 when Johnson is feeling frisky. Once
on the course he is a fierce competitor who enjoys talking a
little trash.

Along with golf, Johnson's other passion is hunting wild game. He
has been to England in pursuit of pheasant, Scotland to chase
grouse and Spain in search of the red-leg partridge, but even in
these pastoral settings he's known to shoot off his mouth. "Very
frequently we shoot at the same bird, at the same time," says
Hugh L. McColl Jr., Johnson's close friend and fellow Augusta
National member. "He has a famous Hootie-ism: 'Did you shoot?'
Meaning he was the one who bagged the bird."

Johnson is a member of the Oakland Club, in Pineville, S.C.,
(what Governor McNair calls "the Augusta National of quail
hunting") and has played an integral role in the preservation of
its reputation. Only 21 members from around the world share
Oakland's 25,000 acres, and the estimated time to clear the wait
list for membership is 14 years. But for all of its exclusivity,
the club was beginning to show signs of neglect until Johnson
became president in the early 1990s. "The club was controlled by
Northerners, and it was not the wonderful place it had been,"
says McNair. "Hootie got himself elected president, and very
quickly it went from a passive to an activist membership. He
improved everything--horses, dogs, the grounds. It was a real
labor of love for him."

If you read all the articles about Charlie Croker ... you had to
endure constant references to hunting, fishing, infantry combat,
football, and a lot of other Southern Manhood stuff....
--A Man in Full

Johnson joined Augusta National in 1968, and the letter of
invitation sent to him by Bobby Jones remains one of his most
prized possessions. But Jones was already bedridden, in the
advanced stages of syringomyelia, and he would be dead by 1971.
Johnson fell under the spell of Clifford Roberts, who had founded
Augusta National along with Jones and for 42 years served as the
club's chairman. Roberts was the obsessive visionary who turned
the Masters into golf's best-run tournament, and he similarly
lorded over club life. He is responsible for Augusta National's
unique leadership structure, which endures to this day. Most golf
clubs are governed in a democratic fashion, with elected officers
and open debate. Augusta National is akin to a banana republic,
as the chairman is a dictator.

Johnson and Roberts dined at each other's homes and frequently
teed it up together. In 1975, two years before he died, Roberts
made his friend a vice president of the club, a largely
ceremonial position that nonetheless stamped Johnson as a
potential successor. Of Roberts's domineering leadership style,
Johnson says, "I liked it. The club ran pretty well."

The three chairmen who served in the 22 years between Roberts and
Johnson were little more than caretakers, paralyzed by the legacy
they were sworn to uphold. When Johnson took over, he set off a
dizzying era of change. Under his watch the course has undergone
an extensive redesign, and in March 2002 he floated the idea of
protecting par with a reduced-flight ball that would be used only
at the Masters. These were bold initiatives that offended many
purists, but it is Johnson's handling of Burk's demand that will
forever define him.

In his opening press release Johnson wrote, "Our membership alone
decides our membership-not any outside group with its own
agenda." He thought he was standing up for a private club's
constitutionally protected right to choose its members, but his
haughty rebuff made it easy for Burk, a media-savvy master of
hyperbole, to narrow the issue to Augusta National's male
chauvinism and to quickly paint its chairman as a latter-day
Little Rascal, blocking the treehouse door with his fellow
members of the He-Man Woman Hater's Club.

Nothing in Johnson's background suggests that there is sexism in
his heart. He is the doting father of four daughters, and he has
served on the board of trustees at the all-women's Converse
College in Spartanburg, S.C. Rather, he is a reflection of the
rarified social set that he moves in. When Johnson is pressed on
the largely homogenous memberships of Forest Lake, or the Oakland
Club, or the Palmetto Club (which added its first black members
in recent years), he has a simple rebuttal: "Those are private
clubs." End of discussion. That is his defense of Augusta
National too. But as the last nine months have made clear,
Johnson underestimated the extent to which Augusta National's
single annual public event has made it subject to public scrutiny
and public pressure.

Having helped to integrate the upper stratum of public life in
South Carolina, Johnson should know that change is inevitable.
The day will come when the Augusta National membership includes a
woman, as surely as the Bankers Trust board of directors did and
as inevitably as the color barrier was broken in the South
Carolina legislature.

Charlie Croker was never able to reconcile the contradictions of
the modern world, in the end forsaking his empire to become an
evangelist. Johnson continues to preach his defense of Augusta
National, but perhaps he should look to another man of the South
for guidance, one who happens to be a friend. Back in 1957 Strom
Thurmond staged one of the most famous acts of defiance in
American politics. In an effort to stall President Eisenhower's
civil rights bill, Thurmond filibustered on the Senate floor for
more than 24 hours, never leaving the room. Johnson claims not to
remember this iconic act of protest, but he does say of Thurmond,
"Over time he turned 180 degrees." It is true that in his last 20
years in office Thurmond became more moderate, but that will not
be his legacy. He will always be a symbol of intolerance. And
history was not on his side. Eleven days after Thurmond's
filibuster ended, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 became law.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY PHILIP BURKE B/W PHOTO: THE SAPLING/GREENWOOD HIGH SCHOOL STRAPPING Hootie flourished at Greenwood High after his father moved the family to rural South Carolina to run a bank. B/W PHOTO: THE SAPLING/GREENWOOD HIGH SCHOOL FORWARD PROGRESS A tailback in high school, Hootie embraced his role as a blocking fullback at South Carolina. B/W PHOTO: ANDREW REDINGTON/GETTY IMAGES THE CHAIRMAN Johnson has been anything but a merely ceremonial head since he took over Augusta National in 1998.

The short drive between the two golf courses serves as a metaphor
FOR JOHNSON'S FITFUL JOURNEY from Old South to New.

Johnson dismisses the criticism, saying, "All you have to do is
look AT THE DETAILS OF MY LIFE to know what I stand for."

"He has always been TOO THIN-SKINNED. And he's stubborn. When he
makes up his mind, it's like he's stuck in the mud."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)