By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Hootie Johnson, who famously rejected the idea of female members at Augusta National Golf Club during his tenure as chairman and spearheaded two overhauls of the course that hosts the Masters, has died. He was 86.
Johnson, a former chairman of the executive committee at Bank of America who served eight years as chairman of Augusta National from 1998-2006, died on Friday, the club said in a statement.
Current Augusta National chairman Billy Payne referred to Johnson as a personal mentor on Masters matters as well as those in business and life.
"He boldly directed numerous course improvements to ensure that Augusta National would always represent the very finest test of golf," said Payne.
"Simultaneously, Hootie expanded television coverage of the Masters, improved qualification standards for invitation to the Tournament and reopened the series badge waiting list for the first time in more than 20 years.
"Many of these measures brought more people than ever closer to the Masters and inspired us to continue exploring ways to welcome people all over the world to the tournament and the game of golf."
Johnson is widely known for a disagreement with women's activist Martha Burk, who demanded a change in the membership policies at Augusta National.
A defiant traditionalist, Johnson felt a private club was well within its right to deny female members, and went as far as to say it would not be forced to act "at the point of bayonet" when Burk demanded a change in 2002.
In 2012, under Payne, Augusta National invited its first two female members since the club was founded in the 1930s. One of those women, South Carolinian businesswoman Darla Moore, was sponsored by Johnson.
His tenure as chairman also coincided with an era of rapidly improving equipment and longer-hitting players and so ordered sweeping changes that made Augusta National, which hosts the Masters every April, a much longer and tougher test.
The moves prompted howls from purists who felt the changes were not what course designers Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie had envisioned.
The club said it will privately honor Johnson's memory in the coming days.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Hugh Lawson)