Commentary

Playing through

Thirty years ago he was held hostage at Augusta. He wants to complete his round.

Originally Published: October 18, 2013
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

Jones IlloMark Matcho for ESPNLanny Wiles was one of the unlucky few to be trapped in the Augusta National pro shop in 1983.

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I SHOULD HAVE BEEN GOLFING," Lanny Wiles says before he launches into what he calls "the Augusta story" in his North Carolina drawl. Thirty years ago this month -- on Oct. 22, 1983 -- Wiles was taken hostage inside the pro shop at famed Augusta National. His boss, President Ronald Reagan, was playing the 16th hole at the time, part of a high-powered foursome. The then-30-year-old Wiles, an advance man responsible for making sure presidential travel ran smoothly, was supposed to be playing in front of Reagan, but his partner, national security adviser Bud McFarlane, had been called away. (The U.S. would invade Grenada just three days later.) Wiles headed to the pro shop to buy some gifts. He was soon looking down the barrel of a gun.

A 45-year-old unemployed pipe fitter named Charlie Harris held it. He had smashed his Dodge pickup through one of the club's gates and raced to the clubhouse. He put his gun to the head of a chauffeur and dragged him into the shop. There were five unlucky people inside: Wiles; David Fischer, Reagan's special assistant; Jim Armstrong, the shop's general manager; and two of Armstrong's young employees.

Harris hustled everybody into the shop's back room except for the chauffeur. "He let him walk right out," Wiles says. Harris then told the remaining hostages his single demand: "I want to see that son of a bitch on the golf course." Since Reagan had taken office, Harris had lost his job, his father had died, and his wife had left him. He wanted to talk to the president about his crumbling life. "I think he probably went about that the wrong way," Wiles says today.

Fischer said he might be able to arrange a meeting with the president, so Harris let him go. He also eventually released the pro shop employees. Only Wiles remained. In the quiet of the empty shop, Harris pointed his revolver at his hostage, pressing it between his eyes. "If you've never been on the wrong end of a .38," Wiles says, "it looks about the size of a water pitcher." Wiles told Harris that he didn't want to die.

Scores of police had gathered outside, guns drawn. Harris fired a single shot to show that he meant business. Then the phone rang. It was the oblivious wife of a member, asking for her clubs to be readied. "Ma'am, we ain't playing no f -- ing golf here today," Harris told her.

The phone rang again. This time Wiles answered. "Stand by for Rawhide," said the voice on the other end, patchy on a giant early mobile phone. Rawhide was Reagan's code name. Rather than leave the course right away, the president thought he would try to defuse the situation. He didn't. Harris couldn't hear him and tore the shop's phone out of the wall.

He followed that by kicking in a bathroom door. Behind it, two more terrified people were hiding: Dave Spencer, one of the club's professionals, and an unidentified woman, who fainted the instant she saw the gun. Harris pulled her toward the shop's entrance; she soon came to and crawled out. Then the shop's TV flashed with footage of Reagan leaving the club, trailed by a car filled with Secret Service agents wearing argyle socks and carrying Uzis. This was not good.

Wiles, who could charm money out of a bank, distracted Harris by talking about stiff drinks and how they both could use one. Harris, scared and muddled, told Wiles to go find him some vodka. Wiles left the shop and found a Secret Service agent instead. "Where have you been?" Wiles hollered. The agent shrugged. He'd been concerned only about the president; the pro shop was left to the police. "That's when I realized you're expendable when you just carry the coat," Wiles says.

Spencer, the sole remaining hostage, later escaped in another moment of confusion, after Harris' mother and ex-wife came to the clubhouse to talk him out. He finally surrendered, served a short prison sentence, found God and died in 2007. Lanny Wiles is now a veteran of countless campaigns. He has just begun yet another, for which he requires only a single yes vote: He'd like Augusta National to let him play the round he never did. "Thirty years later, the hero returns," he says with a laugh, to the place he once feared he might never leave.

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Chris Jones is the back-page columnist for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @MySecondEmpire.

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