WHEN HOOTIEJOHNSON stepped down as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club last week, thereaction was entirely predictable: The lead to virtually every news storyidentified Johnson, 75, as the man who has so noisily defended the club'sestrogen-free membership, as if that was all there was to his tenure. Butwhether you consider Johnson a sexist pig or a heroic champion of theConstitution, it's important to remember that Augusta's macho culture existedfor 65 years before he became chairman, in 1998. Hootie didn't invent theclub's membership practices, he chose not to alter them. The possibility ofwoman members at Augusta National is now a quagmire that belongs to newchairman Billy Payne, 58, the onetime CEO of the Atlanta Olympic committee.However that plays out, Johnson's legacy will live on in other ways.
Those who havefollowed his career know he is a radical at heart. Johnson served one term inthe South Carolina state assembly in the 1960s and became a political kingmakerafter leaving office. He was at the forefront of racial integration in politicsand in business spheres. Johnson brought that vision and energy to his AugustaNational chairmanship, transforming what is usually a caretaker position intoan activist platform. Consider his position on the effects of technology.Johnson's tenure running the club--and by extension, the Masters--coincidedwith an era of tremendous increases in driving distance. While the sport'sruling bodies, the USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, were largelyasleep at the wheel, Johnson aggressively positioned himself as a third-partycommissioner with a single-issue obsession: trying to rein in the effects ofhigh-tech equipment. His series of sweeping retrofits transformed AugustaNational into a longer, tougher, more penal test. Purists howled that this wasnot the course Bobby Jones envisioned, but 350-yard drives were not commonplacein Jones's era. Johnson went even further than pushing back tee boxes; heintroduced the possibility of a throttled-back Masters ball. Howeverproblematic the idea may be, it stimulated discussion, and since then the USGAhas become more proactive in the technology versus tradition debate.
The ultimateirony is that while Johnson has been decried for having a 1950s view of thesexes, he shaped one of golf's most important issues of the 21st century--andsingle-handedly ensured that Augusta National remains a superb tournamentvenue, not a museum piece.