AUGUSTA, Ga. -- President Reagan arrived in Georgia Friday for a relaxed golfing weekend at the Augusta National Golf Club, having deflected questions over the fact that the posh club has no black members.
The president, wearing a sports coat and slacks, and Mrs. Reagan arrived at the club to the cheers and waves of about 200 local citizens and in the company of two members of his Cabinet and investment banker Nicholas Brady.
Reagan joined Secretary of State George Shultz, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, Brady and their wives for what one aide described as a 'purely social weekend,' insulated from reporters and the public. But rain threatened to alter their recreational plans.
Before leaving WasOington, Regan was asked by reporters aboard Air Force One to assess the president's golf game. 'That's going to be the best kept secret of the weekend,' he quipped. As to Reagan's score, the treasury secretary said, 'Let's put it this way: it'll be less than the deficit.'
Reagan, who has tried to shake the image of 'rich man's president,' was put on the defensive on his trip early when he asked at his nationally televised news conference Wednesday night how he could go to the club when it has no black members.
'I don't know anything about the membership,' Reagan said, 'but I know there is nothing in the bylaws of that club that advocates any discrimination of any kind.' Reagan said he had seen blacks play in tournaments at the club.
Presidential spokesman Larry Speakes said the White House, sensitive to suggestions the club barred blacks, checked into the bylaws and found 'no discrimination.'
Club Chairman Horde Hardin of St. Louis said 'our bylaws have nothing on that subject whatsoever,' but as far as he knows the club has no black members.
The club is the home of the Masters, America's premier golf tournament, played every April over the sprawling 365-acre course designed in the early 1930s by legendary champion Bobby Jones.
Reagan, an infrequent golfer known for an annual New Year's Day round at the Palm Springs estate of publisher Walter Annenberg, is making his first visit to Augusta as a guest of Secretary of State George Shultz.
Augusta is extraordinary among the nation's golf clubs. The membership list -- even the number of members -- is secret. The course is closed during the summer and open from October to May. Only members and their guests can play.
A source close to the club estimated the membership roster contains 'under 300' names, with about a dozen from the Augusta area.
A golfer who has played the course said while blacks are not barred by the bylaws, club regulations 'say nothing about how picky the club officials can be about who gets let in.'
But sources said club officials expressed 'considerable relief' when Lee Elder became the first black professional golfer to qualify for the Masters, 'because they had been under considerable pressure' from allegations of discrimination.
Augusta Mayor Edward McIntyre, a black, said he has no problem with the club as the Masters brings 35,000 people to the north Georgia community every year.
'All of us support the Masters and support the club,' he said. 'There are very few local people -- black, white, green or yellow -- who are members of that club.'
The Reagans and the three other couples have been provided the Eisenhower Cabin for the weekend.The dwelling was built in 1953 and occupied frequently by Dwight Eisenhower during his presidency.