First Black at Augusta Downplays Controversy

From Associated Press

Ron Townsend, president of Gannett Television, is the first black member of the Augusta National Golf Club, but the 48-year-old self-confessed golf nut said his acceptance had nothing to do with the racial controversy that raged at last month's PGA Championship.

Augusta National officials made the official announcement Tuesday, saying Townsend, who heads six of Gannett's television stations, had accepted membership in the Georgia club, site of the annual Masters tournament.

The action by the club followed a summer of golf's racial discontent, centered on the racial policies of Shoal Creek Country Club near Birmingham, Ala., where the PGA Championship was played.

Townsend, in a telephone interview from a hotel room in Boston, where he was on a business trip, said he met five or six weeks ago in Washington with members of Augusta National, and membership was discussed and accepted then.

"I had a meeting there with members of Augusta National, which was prompted by the chairman of our company, John Curley, who mentioned my name to some folks," he said.

"It was around the same time as Shoal Creek, but they made it clear that it (accepting a black) had been discussed months before," Townsend said. "It's conceivable that the Shoal Creek thing put in on the front burner, but it was not a direct result of that.

"I enjoy the game of golf and the opportunity to become a member of Augusta National was obviously an opportunity I didn't waste any time in accepting and plan to enjoy," he said. "I consider it an honor."

Townsend was given a full membership, unlike Louis Willie, the first black member at Shoal Creek. Willie, who is not an avid golfer, has an honorary membership.

Townsend, who has served as director of field services for the Children's Television Workshop and was involved in the children's programs "Sesame Street" and "Electric Company," said he plays golf often and is looking forward to playing Augusta.

"I'd categorize myself as a golf nut. I'm a 15 handicap. I shoot in the mid- to high 80s on a good day, and I hope I can maintain my handicap when I play there," Townsend said.

"But, I think I'll be so awed in that environment that scoring will not be a priority. It's such a beautiful golf course. Hopefully it will be conducive to good play for me," he said.

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