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 think?"
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 green?"
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 lead.
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 ball.
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.