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Master OF HIS UNIVERSE
Alan Shipnuck
April 07, 2003
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
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April 07, 2003

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

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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.

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