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.