The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A gunman took hostages at Augusta National. Ronald Reagan tried to calm him down.

Ronald Reagan playing a round of golf at the Los Angeles Country Club on June 8, 1976. (AP)

There are now bollards posted at some of the gates that surround the Augusta National Golf Club so no one can repeat what Charles Harris did 35 years ago.

On Oct. 22, 1983, Harris rammed his Dodge pickup truck through an unmanned locked gate, stormed into the pro shop, took five hostages and demanded to speak with President Ronald Reagan, who was playing the 16th hole at the golf course renowned for being the home for the Masters.

Harris’s life had deteriorated earlier that year, investigators found later. His father died after a long illness. He lost his job at a local paper mill. He struggled with alcoholism. Co-workers told the New York Times after the incident that Harris, 45, had recently gone to a substance abuse treatment center.

Then he heard U.S. Steel was planning massive layoffs to give jobs to foreign workers, he told Golf Digest after he served a short prison term. He snapped.

“I never had any idea of shooting the president,” he said, according to the magazine. “If I’d wanted to kill him, I’d have driven up to him and done it. I just wanted to talk to him. I was protesting our government giving our jobs to foreign people.”

He put his gun, a .38 caliber pistol, to the head of a chauffeur outside, and dragged him into the clubhouse. Inside were two Reagan aides, and three pro shop employees. He let the chauffeur walk out, but herded the five hostages into a back room and ordered an audience with the president.

“I want to see that son of a bitch on the golf course,” Lanny Wiles, one of the Reagan staff members, recalled Harris saying, according to ESPN Magazine.

The other Reagan aide, David Fischer, claimed he might be able to arrange such a meeting. Harris let him go, then the pro shop employees, too.

He kicked down a door in a restroom and found one of the club’s professionals and a woman hiding with him, who fainted when she saw his gun.

Harris pulled her toward a door, according to ESPN, and when she came to, she escaped.

Shortly after, the pro shop phone rang, and Harris answered. It was the wife of a member asking about maintenance on her clubs. Harris cursed at her and slammed the phone down in disgust.

The president was told about the unfolding crisis. Reagan, who’d survived an assassination attempt in 1981, resisted law enforcement directives to be whisked away.

When Ronald Reagan took on the gun lobby

Footage shows the March 30, 1981 assassination attempt of president Ronald Reagan. Former press secretary James Brady, who is highlighted in this video, was shot in the head, leaving him partially paralyzed. (Video: Reuters)

The Secret Service insisted to the Times that the president was never in danger. “This is not one of the most difficult situations we have handled,” spokesman Jack Smith said.

The president chose instead to phone the pro shop and try to calm the kidnapper.

“This is the president of the United States. This is Ronald Reagan. I understand you want to talk to me,” he said on an early cellphone.

Harris couldn’t make out the message because of poor reception, and thought he was listening to a tape. He tore the phone out of the wall, and the Secret Service, with guns drawn, swept Reagan into a bulletproof limousine.

As police surrounded Harris in the pro shop, he fired a shot into the ground, then saw Reagan’s motorcade roll out of Augusta National on a television in the shop. His chance at talking to the president had passed.

Wiles joked with Harris as he turned away from the TV. He said they both could use a stiff drink. Harris agreed, and sent Wiles to go find some vodka. Instead, Wiles made a break for it.

That left only the golf pro, who escaped when police called in Harris’s mother and ex-wife. With all the hostages gone, Harris surrendered without incident. He was convicted of kidnapping, false imprisonment and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but served only three.

As for the president, Reagan returned to the club the next day, and played another round. This time, he finished without any interruptions.

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