You wouldn’t figure Sheila Johnson for a golf mogul. She made her money from a cable-TV network that targeted African-Americans, her first love is the violin, she produces films about women’s issues, and before January she had never played 18 holes. Yet Johnson may be one of the game’s most important new players.
Last week, for the second year in a row, the 60-year-old owner and CEO of Salamander Hospitality welcomed the PGA Tour’s Transitions Championship to her 900-acre, 72-hole Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Tampa. “I’m the hostess with the mostest,” Johnson says of her role, which included giving tours, presiding at barbecues for the players and their families and screening her new documentary film, A Powerful Noise, for Tour wives.
Not bad for a woman who got into the golf business by accident. In 1979 Sheila and her then husband, Bob Johnson, used a $15,000 loan to start Black Entertainment Television. When the couple sold BET to Viacom in 2000 for $2.3 billion in stock, their personal net worth rose to more than $1 billion. Shortly after ending their 33-year marriage, in 2001, Sheila started buying up Washington, D.C., teams: She owns the WNBA’s Mystics and has stakes in the NHL’s Capitals and the NBA’s Wizards. (Bob Johnson is majority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats.)
In 2005 Sheila jumped into the resort business. Johnson bought two nongolf facilities and wanted more. “Innisbrook just happened to be a golf property,” she says. In 2007 Johnson bought the financially reeling and neglected resort for $35 million from Golf Trust of America and undertook a $25 million renovation. “My goal is to grow Innisbrook into a top golf resort and to make the tournament one of the best on Tour,” she says.
To that end Johnson hired Rodney Green from Disney to be her new director of golf. Green has been giving her lessons since he arrived in January, building on her skills as a violinist to teach her the rhythms of the golf swing.
Over the years golf has produced a number of powerful and influential businesswomen. The list includes LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens; Cindy Davis, the president of Nike Golf; Mary Lou Bohn, head of advertising and communications at Titleist; Jan Beljan, one of the main architects at Fazio Design; and WNBA boss Donna Orender, who previously negotiated unprecedented TV deals for the PGA Tour. Johnson appreciates that history and also longs to bring greater attention to women in sports. “My dream is to get an LPGA event,” says Johnson, who has become close friends with Bivens.
More important, in a golf-resort business dominated by corporations and tycoons such as Donald Trump and Herb Kohler, African-Americans are practically nonexistent. To have a black woman running a major golf resort, when there are only a handful of African-American-owned golf courses in the country, is more than a symbolic advancement. As the economic crisis ravages the banking and finance companies that have become the bedrock of golf, Johnson and Salamander provide proof that there is an alternative to the hegemony and homogeneity of corporations that want to be in the golf business.
For her part Johnson dismisses any talk of being a pioneer. “I really never thought about being the only woman in the business,” she says. “I’ve simply tried to be Sheila Johnson and do the best job that I can.”