A woman's touch: Johnson brings new perspective to USGA

Sheila Johnson at Hammock Beach Resort

PALM COAST, Fla. -- Sitting in a luxurious suite with an apropos view – a frothy Atlantic roiling alongside the fairways wrapping Hammock Beach Resort – Sheila Johnson is discussing her recent appointment to the U.S. Golf Association’s Executive Committee.

After all, more than a few may wonder how a relative golf newbie ended up with a seat at the table of the game’s governing body.

It’s actually a fairly straightforward explanation when you have friends such as “Condi” – as in former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And when you own an expanding portfolio of golf getaways,

including Innisbrook Golf Resort & Spa, host this week to the PGA Tour’s Tampa Bay Championship. And when you’ve built a reputation championing opportunities for women and minorities.

It doesn’t hurt, either, when you also happen to be the co-founder of the Black Entertainment Network. Johnson and her first husband, Robert L. Johnson, created BET and sold the pioneering cable venture for $3 billion in 2001.

Exuding a sense of grace and speaking in a melodic tone that belies her frenetic schedule, Johnson talks candidly about last summer’s fateful phone call with Rice that moved golf to the forefront of her life.

“I’ve known Condi since she was with the State Department during the (second) Bush Administration,” Johnson says.

She recalls their conversation: “I really would like you to come out to the U.S. Open and join me there. I want to nominate you to the USGA,” Rice said.

“Are you kidding?”

“No, they really need you.”

Rice, who serves on the USGA’s Nominating Committee, explained the association’s mission to Johnson. But, like anyone who wants more information these days on a given topic, Johnson did the obvious: “I Googled it.”

Her unfamiliarity with the USGA is a revelation that’s shocking, if not disconcerting, considering most people involved with the association are steeped in its functions and traditions. But those who might dismiss Johnson for her lack of golf pedigree do so at their own risk.

At a time when a growing number of USGA critics say the association is losing touch with everyday golf and isn’t doing enough to boost participation, Johnson represents a potential catalyst who has the determination and wherewithal to ignite interest among golf’s most underrepresented constituents.

Indeed, USGA president Glen Nager makes no bones about the purpose of Johnson’s recruitment.

“Sheila brings to the USGA both experience and an important perspective as we continue our work to make the game more welcoming, especially among women and minority golfers,” he says. “And as a successful golf-resort owner in her own right, she can also help strengthen our commitment and service to course operators and public golf.”

Though she has yet to make her mark in the sport, Johnson has pursued other passions that provide a glimpse of what she may be able to accomplish. The way Johnson runs her world, it’s all in – or nothing.

The resort, Hammock Beach, where she is staying? She owns and operates it.

The stunningly vibrant scarf that she’s wearing? She created an entire collection with a little advice from pal and fashion designer Donna Karan.

The just-filmed motion picture that features Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey among its star-studded cast? Johnson assembled the talent and raised nearly $30 million, personally writing a few checks, to make the independent project a reality.

Though she professes to love the game, Johnson hardly has reached avid-golfer status, playing sporadically at best and usually just nine holes squeezed between business meetings. What’s really driving her interest, however, is readily evident. She doesn’t view golf, or athletics, in general, as mere sport, but a vehicle for societal reform – especially to inspire women and give them the clout that only economic equality can deliver.

“Even today, you hear derogatory comments about women in sports; you know, just really stupid remarks,” Johnson says. “If we had more acceptance of women in sports, you would not see a lot of the problems of self-esteem. You’d see more women learning to be successful in corporate fields.

“Through golf, I can give them skills that they’d never be able to get in a classroom. This is my vision of what we need to do.”

• • •

Her wealth and her upbringing as the daughter of a neurosurgeon often typecast Johnson as a privileged socialite. It’s a portrayal that grossly ignores the work ethic and determination that earned her every penny she has.

“People think, ‘Oh, your (father’s) a doctor; you make a lot of money.’ But it was paycheck-to-paycheck,” she says. “I remember my parents sitting in the dining room doing the bills every two weeks and hearing, ‘How are we going to do this? How are we going to do that?’ I became very sensitive to the bottom line.”

In an era of segregation, Johnson’s late father, George Crump, found it virtually impossible to practice in white hospitals. His only recourse? Hop from one VA hospital to another for far less pay. Through middle school, Johnson and her family had moved 13 times across the eastern U.S.

But instead of bemoaning her itinerant childhood, she recalls it fondly – mostly because of her father’s love for music, which he instilled in her. An accomplished pianist, Crump filled his home with Chopin’s “Polonaise” or Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malaguena.” When her family finally settled in Maywood, Ill., Johnson thrived in the rich music programs offered in Chicago’s public schools. She gravitated to the violin and excelled. After dinner and upon finishing her homework during high school, Johnson would go to bed for a few hours and awake at midnight to practice until 2 a.m. Of her nightly routine, she says: “I played in the kitchen because I loved the acoustics in there. It drove my family nuts.”

As a teenager, Johnson formed a string quartet that routinely landed paid gigs and even played in the home of Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo. She recalls that the notorious Chicago Mafia boss, who rose through the ranks of Al Capone’s organization, “gave us good cash.”

Her musical talent eventually led to a teaching career at a private school in Washington, where she organized and led the orchestra. But earning a paltry $7,200 per year spurred her first attempt at entrepreneurship.

She converted her basement into a rehearsal room and began offering private lessons. With nearly 140 pupils, her business thrived and “kept a roof over our heads” as she and her husband launched BET in 1979. The network didn’t take off, however, until almost a decade later, when the advent of music videos finally created content that attracted advertising dollars. Though the videos were a financial savior, Johnson says, “The content went south fast. It became more about the exploitation of women.”

Escalating conflict with her husband over BET’s direction contributed to the decision to sell the network. It also destroyed her marriage. “I was very devoted to this man, and it hurt. It really hurt. I went through a very personal pullback of trying to rediscover myself. I had to recalibrate.”

• • •

In “Act III of my life,” as Johnson likes to say, she has reinvented herself as a golf-resort owner, but purely by happenstance. In the aftermath of her divorce, she sought refuge in bucolic Middleburg, Va., less than an hour outside of Washington. When she came across 340 acres of undeveloped property, she “just knew” what she wanted to tackle next. Her original plan to build a quaint inn on the site morphed into developing a luxury resort (Salamander Resort & Spa).

It’s finally on track to open in late August, but she worried about losing the management team she had assembled during its prolonged development.

“I’ve got to give them something to do, so I decided to buy Innisbrook,” she says.

Since then, Johnson has added Reunion Resort & Spa and Hammock Beach to her company, Salamander Hotels & Resorts. She named her business after the creature because she found its ability to survive trauma, even regenerating its damaged tail, an apt symbol for her own resiliency. Though her goal isn’t necessarily to build an empire, Johnson is eyeing select acquisitions.

“The vision is independent luxury with Sheila’s stamp on it, which means it’s personalized, not defined by formality or stuffiness,” says Salamander president Prem Devadas, whom Johnson hired away from Kiawah Island Resort after he guided the development of its acclaimed hotel, The Sanctuary. “Salamander won’t be defined by how many, but the quality of the individual experience (at each resort).”

Using golf as a cornerstone, Johnson is constantly hatching ideas to market her resorts and enhance their offerings to draw new audiences.

At Innisbrook, roughly 275 women attended an executive women’s networking event she co-hosted with Annika Sorenstam. Salamander properties also have hosted tournaments on The Legends Tour, the LPGA’s senior circuit, and Johnson wants to create summer golf camps for youth. At Washington Mystics basketball games – she also owns the WNBA franchise – “hole-in-one” contests are staged to promote her destinations.

“With all the venues that I have access to in my life, I’m going to keep bringing golf into them,”

Johnson says. “I’m going to take golf out of its silo.”

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