Commentary

Sheila Johnson poised for key role

Updated: February 26, 2013, 8:27 AM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

Sheila Johnson doesn't own a handicap index or a sure command of the Rules of Golf or memberships at old-money country clubs.

But she is a businesswoman, a cable TV pioneer turned resort and sports team owner with a vision to make golf a better place for women, racial minorities and anybody who ever felt left out of the game.

In early February, the 63-year-old co-founder of Black Entertainment Television became the first African-American woman elected to the 15-member USGA executive committee.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Ben Gabbe/Getty ImagesSheila Johnson not only possesses the business acumen to hold her own on the USGA's executive committee, but she also has a serious financial and personal interest in growing the game.

There might not be a better person in America more suited than her to help the USGA grow the game. The Maywood, Ill., native is at once an outsider to this elite world and an insider as one of the most powerful women in golf. She is the CEO of the Salamander Hotels and Resorts, which includes the Grand Golf Resorts of Florida.

The accomplished violinist and former music teacher also has ownership stakes in Washington, D.C.'s NHL, NBA and WNBA franchises.

"We have so many groups, women and people of color who love golf, but aren't feeling included inside this bubble," Johnson said. "We need to start a whole p.r. marketing campaign to let people know that we want to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

"It's got to be talked about through the media, through the USGA, the PGA Tour and the PGA of America that we need more people of color on television other than Tiger. We need to see more people of color in the anchoring booth. We need to see more people of color in the galleries."

Johnson seemed destined for this new role from the moment she bought the Innisbrook Resort near Tampa, Fla., in 2007 for $35 million. At BET, she helped her ex-husband, Bob Johnson, leave an indelible mark on cable TV history by introducing an entire network targeted to African-Americans.

Now as the only black owner of a major golf resort in the U.S., she was poised to make this 72-hole facility a laboratory for her inclusive vision of the game.

One of her first major moves was selecting Rodney Green as director of golf. At the time Green was hired, he was the only black to lead a major resort and just one of 85 -- out of 27,000 -- black PGA of America members.

Johnson has also used Innisbrook to advance women in the game. She has hosted Futures Tour events and the LPGA Legends.

For Johnson, diversity makes good business sense. She believes it's the best option for the game and for her bottom line as a resort owner.

"At the Grand resorts, we have made it a lot more inclusive for all groups -- male, female, youth-oriented, woman and racial minorities," Johnson said. "We are open for business for everyone."

When she bought Innisbrook, she encountered a group of African-American players who told her that they had never felt welcome at the club.

"We have to start making people feel more comfortable about going to resorts, playing the game and going to tournaments," Johnson said. "Golf is now in a real transitional situation in the sense that rounds have gone down, and this is now the time to rethink the game in terms of how we are going to bring the recreational golfer back to resorts."

Johnson isn't the first person charged with this work by the USGA. In 1992, John Merchant, a prominent African-American lawyer from Fairfield, Conn. who briefly worked for Tiger Woods early in his career, was appointed to the executive committee.

During his tenure, Merchant organized four industrywide symposiums on diversity and helped to start the National Minority Golf Foundation and the First Tee program. With his bushy gray mustache and fisherman's hat, the first black graduate of the University of Virginia law school was a fixture inside the ropes at USGA events throughout the 1990s.

Barbara Douglas, who died in January 2012 after a long battle with ovarian cancer, was the first black to chair the USGA women's committee.

Johnson was introduced to the USGA by her friend Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, who sits on the nominating committee for the executive board.

Four years ago, when Rice was just a guest herself at the Masters, she brought along Johnson, who was at the tournament for the first time.

"I walked through the front door of the Augusta National clubhouse," Johnson remembers. "The clouds parted and I rolled in with Condoleezza."

On the weekend, Johnson took in the action at Amen Corner. This year, Johnson will be at the Masters in an official capacity for the USGA.

Never a golfer until she purchased Innisbrook, Johnson is probably the least-credentialed player to ever sit on the executive committee.

At the recent board induction ceremony, she got a good chuckle when someone leaned over to ask her about her handicap.

"A lot of people don't report handicaps." Johnson said. "I never even thought about a handicap until the USGA asked me about it during this process. I just play for fun. But the USGA said you have to get a handicap."

Johnson wants to bring some of this laid-back approach to the game. At Innisbrook, she hopes to implement a nine-hole rate, among other things, to speed up play and lower greens fees.

"The game needs to look at how to make it more fun for the recreational golfer," said Johnson, who enjoys the best-ball format. "I think until we start making these changes, I wouldn't mind Innisbrook being the resort to try these new innovative methods and I can report back to the USGA."

USGA executive committee members are evaluated on an annual basis. But don't expect the blunt-talking Johnson to shy away from controversy or issues that might unsettle the orthodoxy of the golf establishment.

"Some people say I don't suffer fools lightly," Johnson said. "I let people know what I think is fair. I feel as though we can get to the heart of the problem and try to come up with a solution."

In the meantime, Johnson, the mother of two grown children, has to begin turning in her scores to get a handicap. She lives primarily in Middleburg, Va., in the horse country, but she plays most of her golf when she goes down to Innisbrook in early March in advance of the Tampa Bay Championship, the PGA Tour event held on the resort's Copperhead course.

"I have been on the golf course with a couple of women, and they have commented on my game," Johnson said. "They say I hit the ball straight. It's beginner's luck."

As for her learning the Rules of Golf, it's a work in progress.

"I glance at the rules every day, hoping something will stick," she said. "I'm watching golf on TV. I'm about 50 percent there. It is a very hard piece. It's going to take me a year or two."