USGA Influence May Be Taking Course at Augusta

hootie johnson - augusta national
In the four years since "Hootie" Johnson spoke publicly about the possibility of some day using a scaled back golf ball for the Masters, he has been silent on the subject. (Elise Amendola - AP File Photo)
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 4 -- When former U.S. Golf Association executive director Sandy Tatum read in 2002 that Augusta National Chairman William "Hootie" Johnson had spoken publicly about the possibility of some day using a scaled back golf ball for the Masters, Tatum said he was thrilled. Finally, he thought, one of the game's major powerbrokers was preparing to take a stand to protect the sanctity of a storied golf course against club and ball technology providing the game's finest players more and more distance seemingly by the day.

But in the intervening years since Johnson made those comments, Tatum and many other advocates of the less lively "tournament ball" -- Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, among others -- have been disappointed that Johnson has instead decided to twice lengthen the course (now at 7,445 yards) rather than mandate the use of a restricted Masters ball that would fly about 15 to 25 yards shorter.

"Without any ifs, ands or buts, if Hootie had decided to pursue the thought publicly that the Masters course was becoming obsolete and he thought the governing bodies weren't doing anything, he might have had a huge influence on those governing bodies," Tatum said in an interview. "There is so much concern about what is happening to that golf course, he could have used the power and the influence the club has to take the game back once and for all. Sadly, he didn't do it."

Only Johnson knows for sure why he chose not to take that step. Instead, he chose to lengthen the course by 155 yards from last year and make other changes without even consulting six-time champion Jack Nicklaus and four-time winner Arnold Palmer, both honorary members of the club and highly successful course designers.

"It's sad, really," said veteran PGA Tour player Nick Price, playing in his 21st Masters this week. "You've got Jack and Arnie there, two of the greatest players of all time. They live and breathe Augusta National, consider it like their own back yard. They helped make the Masters what it is, and they don't even think about asking those guys?"

Johnson, the retired South Carolina banker who has been chairman of the club since 1998, declined to be interviewed for this article. An Augusta National spokesman wrote in an e-mail, "We have decided we have nothing to add for your story."

Johnson's reluctance to take a stance on the scaled-back ball speaks volumes about the Masters' stature in the U.S. golf establishment and the unique position of Augusta National as the most powerful golf club in America. In recent years, it has maintained its all-male membership despite a challenge from some of the nation's most influential women's organizations. It also remains the only private golf club that runs one of the game's four major championships independently of any of the main governing bodies of the sport.

Some believe that Johnson's reluctance to adapt a tournament ball stemmed from lobbying from the U.S. Golf Association, which is conducting a technical study of the golf ball. Several USGA officers, past and present, are members of Augusta National, including Atlanta attorney Walter Driver, the association's new president. Augusta member Fred Ridley, a Tampa attorney and former U.S. Amateur champion, is the USGA's most recent past president. Current USGA secretary James Reinhart, a Wisconsin-based financial adviser and seemingly on the fast track to the USGA presidency, also belongs, as do past USGA presidents Will Nicholson and Buzz Taylor.

All declined to comment about the club's relationship with the USGA, as did USGA Executive Director David Fay, who said his organization's rules specifically prohibited him from speaking about the inner workings of any USGA member club.

In an interview with Golfweek Magazine in February, Driver said: "Augusta National makes its own decisions without consulting any other organization, including the USGA. The fact that we may have some overlap doesn't mean these decisions are made by the same people or in the same way. It is not the job of the USGA to conduct the affairs of its member clubs."

The USGA last year asked manufacturers to submit balls that would fly 15 to 25 yards less than current models. There has been speculation Ridley and Driver, among others, may have asked the Masters chairman to hold off until those submissions are completed.

"For some mysterious reason, Hootie keeps changing the golf course," said Geoff Shackelford, author of "The Future of Golf" and a longtime USGA critic. "It seems clear someone is influencing him. I don't want to call it a cabal, but there's a great deal of power there on both sides, and maybe what we're seeing is just a power struggle. For now, it really does look like the USGA side is managing Hootie, which is just fascinating."

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