The home of The Masters since 1934, Augusta National Golf Club has provided some of the greatest moments in golf history. The highly exclusive club has also hosted numerous U.S. presidents over the years. Dwight D. Eisenhower was such a frequent visitor — he played the course 29 times during his two terms — that he had a cabin on Bobby Jones’ hallowed grounds named after him.
In October 1983, Ronald Reagan visited Augusta National for one of the rare rounds of his presidency but never got to finish as a man who’d voted for him three years earlier stormed the home of The Masters and took seven hostages, leading to a two-hour standoff that thankfully ended with nobody being hurt.
The man who stormed Augusta National once worked concessions at The Masters and played semi-pro football
The man who invaded Augusta National the day Ronald Reagan was on the course was a 45-year-old local man named Charles R. Harris, who was known to some as “Smiley” as he apparently rarely smiled. Harris knew the grounds at Augusta as he’d worked concessions at The Masters throughout high school and would sometimes sneak into the club to collect balls from a pond behind the cottages that often serve as temporary residences for the players during Masters week.
Harris tried golf at one point but it was simply too frustrating and gave it up as he preferred more physical sports anyway. He was a solid football player in high school, even receiving some scholarship offers, but an injury derailed that dream, although he did later play semi-pro ball for the Augusta Eagles, the team from which about 25 players were used as extras in the original version of The Longest Yard starring Burt Reynolds.
In 1983, Harris was extremely down on his luck. He’d recently lost his father, a Navy vet and former Augusta police detective whom he called his best friend, and had also lost his job at the paper mill where he’d worked for 23 years. His marriage was on the rocks, he was drinking too much, and was just fed up, which is what led him to Augusta National.
Harris knew President Ronald Reagan was on the grounds that day
On the morning of October 22, 1983, Harris and his sister, Harriet, were driving by Augusta National and noticed quite a bit of security surrounding the club. Harriet recognized one of the deputies so they stopped and asked what was going, at which point they were told President Ronald Reagan was on the grounds. Reagan had been shot two years earlier and his security detail was still much larger than it had been before.
Not thinking much of it, Charles went home, fixed himself a drink, and flipped on the television to hear that U.S. Steel was laying off thousands of workers as the industry was in trouble due to losing business to foreign-made steel, which angered Harris so much that he decided he was going to head back to Augusta National to have a chat with Ronald Reagan. And he was taking his .38-caliber revolver with him.
For some reason, there was no security at Gate 3 at Augusta National so Harris rammed his 1974 Dodge pick-up truck through the gate and drove toward the clubhouse, setting off a dramatic two-hour standoff.
Harris took seven hostages at Augusta National while demanding to speak to Ronald Reagan
Now, the White House version of what happened at Augusta National on October 22, 1983, is a little different than the version Charles Harris told Golf Digest back in 2000. While most accounts say that Ronald Reagan was on the famed par-3 16th hole — the hole on which Tiger Woods made his famous chip in 2005 — when Harris busted into the home of The Masters, Harris contends that he saw Reagan right when he drove up to the clubhouse area.
Either way, Harris was set on speaking to Reagan and ended up taking seven hostages, starting with a club chauffer, Roy Sullivan, whom he walked into the pro shop at gunpoint before letting him go, telling him that he could drink the bottle of tequila that was in his truck for his troubles.
In the pro shop, Harris took six additional hostages — two White House staffers and four club employees — eventually letting them all go. The official story says that one hostage escaped, which Harris said wasn’t true. As the day went on, authorities surrounded the shop. Sharpshooters set up near the practice green while helicopters hovered over Augusta National as Harris waited to hear whether or not his demand would be met, which it actually was as Ronald Reagan called the shop from his armored limo.
However, Harris thought the call was a trick and that he was listening to a recording, which caused him to angrily hang up without ever saying a word to Reagan, who was then escorted off the grounds. Harris said that he never had any intention of hurting anyone, including Ronald Reagan himself, and that the one shot he fired that day was just to prove that his .38 was indeed functional.
At 4:20 p.m., a little less than two hours after he broke into Augusta National, Charles Harris surrendered to police as he knew the alternative option was death. He was never charged with a federal crime but did spend five years in Georgia state prison for false imprisonment and was monitored by the Secret Service for four years upon his release. He died in 2007 at the age of 68.
As for Ronald Reagan, he had quite a long week after the incident at Augusta National as just about seven hours later, a suicide bomber killed 241 U.S. military personnel in Beirut and just a couple of days later, the U.S. and a coalition of Caribbean nations invaded Grenada.