Ron Townsend, president of Gannett Television Group and a "frustrated weekend golfer," is the first black member at prestigious Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.
There was no official announcement because the club prefers to keep its limited membership as anonymous as possible. All Chairman Hord Hardin said was that a "black gentleman" had been admitted. But when word spread, especially among his many Washington-area friends, the 48-year-old Potomac resident was happy to provide confirmation and eager for the privileges to begin.
The way Townsend talked during a phone interview, he has spent more time debating what club to use for tricky fairway lies than he did deciding whether to accept the invitation from the home of the Masters tournament.
"Quick," he said of the decision.
"I've never been to Augusta National," said Townsend, who oversees operation of six Gannett stations, including WUSA-TV-9 here. "But I've always thought of it as one of the great golfing experiences."
Evidently, Townsend was being considered for membership by Augusta weeks before the incident in Alabama that makes it even more newsworthy. That was the early-August PGA Championship and the economic fallout triggered when Hall Thompson, founder and owner of the host Shoal Creek Golf Club, said blacks were denied membership because "that sort of thing is not done in Birmingham."
A few companies withdrew their television sponsorship and several more threatened future action, prompting most major U.S. golf organizations to alter the policies by which tournament sites are selected.
Thompson yesterday said Shoal Creek may never host another major tournament, adding he was "sorely abused" and "our membership doesn't deserve to be treated as it has been."
In a related matter, a club in St. Louis, Old Warson, has informed the PGA Tour that it will not change its membership policies and thus will not host the 1991 Southwestern Bell Classic, the New York Times reported.
Also, the Times quoted "officials" as saying Butler National Golf Club, site of the Western Open in Oak Brook, Ill., will give up the event rather than change its membership policies to include women.
Interest during the Shoal Creek incident quickly turned to Augusta National, almost surely the course most avid golfers recognize above all others because it hosts the annual Masters. Absence of black members at Augusta long has been a subject of controversy, in part because no black golfer played in the Masters until Lee Elder did in 1975. Civil rights leaders had announced plans to protest at the Masters next spring if the club remained segregated.
"I hope they go on to admit women, do business with black-owned businesses, support athletic programs at black colleges and use black vendors at their activities," said Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "It's a good first step."
Before it was revealed that Townsend was the person, Hardin said of the first black member: "I think as he settles in, he will enjoy being a member and we will enjoy having him as a member. I know it's going to work."
Hardin, through an aide, declined to say more yesterday.
Townsend is a member at Indian Spring in Silver Spring and a summer member at Congressional. He said his handicap is a "strong 15."
"I imagine I'll find out who my friends are," he said, alluding to the dream of most golfers to play Augusta National.
The shot of his life, he said, was a 5-wood on the 17th fairway of the Valley Course at Indian Spring that hopped into the hole from about 195 yards for an eagle 2.