Johnson Steps Down As Augusta Chairman

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 6, 2006

William F. "Hootie" Johnson, the 75-year-old South Carolina banker who became a central figure in a national controversy over the right of a private club to exclude women from membership, resigned yesterday after eight years as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters, one of the golf's four major championships.

Johnson will be replaced by Billy Payne, 58, an investment banker best known for spearheading Atlanta's successful bid for the 1996 Olympics, then serving as the president and chief executive officer for the Games. Johnson, who gave no reason for his decision to step down, will officially relinquish his position May 21 and has been named the club's chairman emeritus.

Johnson's legacy will include two significant overhauls of the golf course, allowing 18-hole network television coverage of the tournament for the first time and making significant changes in Masters qualifying procedures. But he'll be remembered mainly for engaging in a public dispute that began in 2002 with Martha Burk, then chairwoman of the Washington-based National Council of Women's Organizations, over the issue of Augusta National not having any female members.

Burk initially wrote Johnson a letter inquiring about the club's all-male membership policy. He wrote her back and made his response public, saying the club was not about to change at "the point of a bayonet." Burk organized a national campaign against the club and held a rally in Augusta during the 2003 Masters attended by more media members than actual protesters.

Johnson released Masters television sponsors from their commitments for the 2003 and 2004 tournaments, not wanting them to become targets for further protest. The tournament was aired commercial-free by CBS for two years until 2005.

Augusta National still maintains an all-male membership, and it remained unclear yesterday if Payne has any plans to change it. A club spokesman said Payne will make his first public comment on his new position during a media teleconference Monday and would defer any questions until then. The spokesman said Johnson was not commenting at this time.

In a news release from the club announcing the change, Payne said, "Hootie did a wonderful job as chairman, and I will endeavor to maintain the customs and traditions of our club as established by Clifford Roberts [the club's chairman from 1933 to 1977] and Bobby Jones," who helped found the club.

Burk said in a statement that the "NCWO welcomes the news that Mr. Johnson is retiring. We congratulate Mr. Billy Payne and urge him to exercise stronger leadership and better judgment than his predecessor."

In a telephone interview, Burk, who retired last fall as chairwoman of the NCWO, said she wondered if Payne "had to make a commitment not to [admit women members] in order to become chairman. I hope not. I hope he'll show leadership and do the right thing. I hope the corporate guys who are members will see the opportunity they have to exercise collective new leadership with the new chairman.

"I think it's a tremendous opportunity for the club to shake off the stigma it's been under for the last four years. They have an identity as a premier club, but they also are identified with sexual discrimination, and now they have the opportunity to change that."

Payne has been chairman of Augusta National's media committee since 1998. Born in Athens, Ga., and raised in Atlanta, he holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Georgia, where he also played college football. He is now a partner in Gleacher Partners, an Atlanta investment banking firm and chairman of Centennial Investment Properties, a multifamily investment partnership.

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