JOHNSON stepped down as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club last week, the
reaction was entirely predictable: The lead to virtually every news story
identified Johnson, 75, as the man who has so noisily defended the club's
estrogen-free membership, as if that was all there was to his tenure. But
whether you consider Johnson a sexist pig or a heroic champion of the
Constitution, it's important to remember that Augusta's macho culture existed
for 65 years before he became chairman, in 1998. Hootie didn't invent the
club's membership practices, he chose not to alter them. The possibility of
woman members at Augusta National is now a quagmire that belongs to new
chairman 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 have
followed his career know he is a radical at heart. Johnson served one term in
the South Carolina state assembly in the 1960s and became a political kingmaker
after leaving office. He was at the forefront of racial integration in politics
and in business spheres. Johnson brought that vision and energy to his Augusta
National chairmanship, transforming what is usually a caretaker position into
an activist platform. Consider his position on the effects of technology.
Johnson's tenure running the club--and by extension, the Masters--coincided
with an era of tremendous increases in driving distance. While the sport's
ruling bodies, the USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, were largely
asleep at the wheel, Johnson aggressively positioned himself as a third-party
commissioner with a single-issue obsession: trying to rein in the effects of
high-tech equipment. His series of sweeping retrofits transformed Augusta
National into a longer, tougher, more penal test. Purists howled that this was
not the course Bobby Jones envisioned, but 350-yard drives were not commonplace
in Jones's era. Johnson went even further than pushing back tee boxes; he
introduced the possibility of a throttled-back Masters ball. However
problematic the idea may be, it stimulated discussion, and since then the USGA
has become more proactive in the technology versus tradition debate.
irony is that while Johnson has been decried for having a 1950s view of the
sexes, he shaped one of golf's most important issues of the 21st century--and
single-handedly ensured that Augusta National remains a superb tournament
venue, not a museum piece.