Golf Saved My LifeSeptember 8, 2011

After Being Kidnapped,

Golf Eased My Mind

EDITOR'S NOTE: Reg Murphy served as president of the United States Golf Association in 1994 and 1995. Now 77, he recounts being kidnapped at age 40 when he was the editorial-page editor of the Atlanta Constitution.

In 1974, Atlanta was growing rapidly, and the heart of the city, or at least the connective tissue, was the newspaper. When I was at the Atlanta Constitution, one role of mine was to network with local figures. So it was not unusual when one day I received a call from a man looking to donate 300,000 gallons of heating oil. He was closing one business to start another and was hoping to get a substantial tax break. The man spoke pleasantly enough and asked if I could connect him with potential recipients. I checked with our accountants to confirm and estimate the tax implication and then lined up four candidates: three local universities and a children's hospital.

The man canceled our first meeting but called the next day -- Feb. 20 -- at dusk. He said he was heading to his lawyer's office to sign some papers and wanted me to go with him. I was at home but agreed to go. He drove a green Ford Torino, but my most vivid memory is of him standing at my front door. I'd later learn he was 33, but he looked older. He was medium height, like me, and stocky, but not intimidating, with close-cropped hair and a red face. He seemed agitated, and my instinct was to not let him in my house, especially with my 12-year-old daughter upstairs doing her homework. He kept prattling about the papers that needed to be signed, so I got in the passenger seat, and off we went.

At this hour there would still be law offices open downtown, but we weren't heading in that direction. "Hey," I said, "there aren't any law offices this way."

He was steering with his right hand, and with his left he leaned a handgun across his forearm, looked over, and said, "Mr. Murphy, you've been kidnapped."

He tossed a roll of white adhesive tape onto my lap and told me to cover my eyes. With the gun pointing at me, I did as I was told and applied three strips from temple to temple. A few minutes later the car stopped. He came around to my door and made me get out and stand still while he used rope to tie my wrists behind my back and then my ankles. Though I was blindfolded I knew that dusk had turned to night. I felt the gun prod my neck, my back and my legs as he fought the knots tight. He told me to get in the trunk. It was awkward and clumsy as I sat on the fender and tumbled in, him at once facilitating the effort and enjoying the physical pain he could inflict freely.

When I was in the trunk, he tied my wrists to my ankles behind me so that my body formed a reverse-C. This was very uncomfortable for my back. The trunk was shallow -- if I moved my head up even a few inches it hit the roof. I was breathing fast, but I was also trying to control my breath, trying not to panic.

We drove for hours. The trunk of a car isn't soundproof, so we spoke without raising our voices. He was a "colonel" in a militia he called the American Revolutionary Army. Its goal was to stop the lying of leftist newspapers in America, as well as eventually force all federal government officials to resign, and hold new elections. Two weeks before, in the most famous kidnapping case of the decade, newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, 20, had been abducted in Berkeley, Calif., by a leftist militant group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. My kidnapper, however, was far to the right. He was a bigot and disagreed vehemently with the anti-Vietnam stance of our "damn liberal" newspaper and all it had done to promote the civil-rights movement. He talked about his .38-caliber pistol and a lot about guns in general. His group practiced sniper tactics and other drills in the woods on weekends. He insisted that I address him as Colonel, and I believed it was prudent to humor this request.

Lying in the trunk, the bumps in the road shuddering the side of my skull, my eyelids and lashes painfully stuck to the tape, my mind wandered to Barbara Jane Mackle. My home was four miles from the Emory University campus, and it had been six years earlier that Mackle, a student at Emory and the daughter of a wealthy Florida real-estate developer, was kidnapped for ransom and buried underground in a plywood-and-fiberglass capsule with an air hose for 83 hours before being rescued. I prayed something so torturous was not in store for me.

We stopped. I heard dogs barking and a different man's voice say, "Don't let the dogs get him." Still tied and blindfolded, I was led into a building, stuffed under blankets and made to sleep in the narrow space between a wall and a bed. Sometime during the night I thought I heard the voices of children. I would learn later that the Colonel's real name was William Williams and that he was a drywall subcontractor and the father of two. As seemingly incomprehensible as it would've been to lead me blindfolded into his home or the home of a conspirator who had children, the Colonel's plan often seemed erratic. Before I was shoved between the bed and the wall, he dialed my colleague Jim Minter, managing editor at the Constitution, and held the receiver to my mouth so that I could tell Jim I'd been kidnapped. I was also made to record an audiotape saying that the ransom was $700,000 and summarizing several of the inanities held dear by the ARA. Knowing my wife and two daughters would likely hear this, I tried to sound very calm.

During the night I pulled tufts of wool from the blankets and the carpet and stuffed them into my pockets. I thought it was possible these fibers could prove helpful clues to future investigators. Whether they would be investigating my death, I did not know. In the audiotape the Colonel had impressed me to say the only way I would get hurt was if others tried to trace down our whereabouts.

In the morning, the first voice I heard was that of Tom Brokaw, who had been the anchor at the NBC affiliate in Atlanta. Beneath the flat, earnest voice delivering the news of my kidnapping, I detected the distress of a friend. I was marched to the car and again suffered the difficulty of getting into the trunk with my limbs tied.

It was a cool day, the temperature in the 50s, but the trunk of a car can get extremely hot. Each breath seemed to draw almost no oxygen, and the smell of car exhaust burned my nostrils. I feared I was going to suffocate. I yelled and pleaded that he had to give me fresh air or I was going to die. I thought of my heart murmur, which was normally a nonissue, but in this situation I feared it might accelerate or even decide my death. If I was going to have any chance to survive, I knew I had to stay calm.

As I took tiny breaths, I tried to lose myself in memories. I thought about play days with my kids, but this made me sad knowing I might never see them grow up. I tried to reconstruct other events from my life, days from grade school and college and my career, but these memories were splintered and did not hold my attention long. I fancied myself an amateur photographer, and so I tried to remember in detail peaceful photographs I had taken, but again, these shots occupied my mind not much longer than the time it took to snap them. I needed a memory with greater continuity, and that's when I started playing golf. I was a 7-handicapper then.

I first decided to replay every shot of my last round, which had been at the Capital City Club the weekend before. We'd started on the 10th hole, and from my opening tee ball I was able to retrace every shot like links on a chain. Had I hit the ball to the left or the right? If I'd been in the rough, how had the lie been? If I ended up in a bunker, had I hit a good shot to escape it? I recalled the specific contours of the greens and whether I had made the putt. When I finished that round I replayed my last round at Augusta National, where I had been fortunate to be a guest a few times. There were of course interruptions, the Colonel spouting his politics at me or scanning the radio for news reports, but by playing golf I was able to lose myself for longer and longer periods of time. Because there is so much decision-making involved in each shot, it is amazing the mental recall the game provides.

One radio station interviewed my father. Asked how he thought I was holding up, I heard my father say, "Reg is tough; he'll be fine. The only thing he's afraid of is snakes." I cringed. Thanks, Dad. Now this lunatic was going to go find a snake to throw in the trunk for pleasure. Instead, it was not long afterward that the Colonel finally stopped and opened the trunk to let in some fresh air. It was the only time he did this, and the cool winter wind that stirred the trunk was the best breeze I'd ever known.

The Colonel relished the publicity he was generating on the airwaves. He would laugh excitedly at mentions and suddenly stop the car to phone in messages. A couple of times he called the paper directly, but other times he called individuals at random in the Atlanta area and had them call the newspaper with instructions. Each move the Colonel made seemed as if it had just occurred to him, and this unplanned nature was what I found most terrifying. Anything could happen. After I replayed my most recent rounds, I started playing make-believe rounds. At courses I knew well, I would imagine every detail down to the weather, the bounces, the people I was paired with, and the shots they'd hit. I made a lot of birdies.

The second night we went to a motel. There is a distinct antiseptic smell to cheap motel rooms that is unmistakable. We recorded another audiotape. I was again made to sleep between a bed and a wall, and this time I secretly shed my watch as a clue.

The next morning brought my only meal. The Colonel brought me scrambled eggs that I ate with my fingers. As we were walking in what must have been the motel parking lot, I heard the Colonel say, "This is my brother, and he's just had an operation on his eyes." With all the news and TV publicity, I can't believe nothing ever came of this! I almost made a move, but I didn't know where the gun was or where we were. The situation didn't allow for acting on guesses.

The Colonel's demands for the exchange were the most specific part of his plan. He wanted the money delivered in two suitcases to a rural road sign an hour north of the city by a man driving an open-top jeep wearing a short-sleeve shirt and tennis shoes. I'd later learn that Jack Tarver, the publisher of our newspaper, used his connections at the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank to secure that amount in marked bills, and Jim Minter drove the jeep. I was not aware of the handoff while it was happening, though I'm told the FBI had an agent disguised as a horse herder in an adjacent field, and that a helicopter followed our car until nightfall before losing our trail. Sometime afterward I heard a suitcase unlatch and the Colonel said, "Does that smell like filthy lucre to you?"

Understanding that he'd got his money, I said, "No, Colonel. That smells like freedom to me." This made him chuckle.

From then on I tried to engage the Colonel in as much conversation as possible. I talked about the ways money can change someone's life for the better. I talked about places I had traveled around the world that he might also like to see. Without begging for my life, I wanted to impress upon him that now was not the time to make a mistake, to do anything that might jeopardize his now bright future. He told me he had a boat waiting for him somewhere, and I said that sounded really great.

The car stopped, and the Colonel turned off the engine. I heard his door open, then shut, then his footsteps came around to the trunk. The trunk lid squeaked open, and cold air rushed across my face. The Colonel told me to get out and then lifted me up by the rope that bound my wrists. This was when I had my strongest premonition of death. Wherever we were, this was where he was going to get rid of me. I could identify him.

He jabbed the gun in my back as he untied my ankles. "Stand here, and don't move for five minutes."

The car started, and I heard it drive away. I ripped the tape from my eyes and saw it was night, and that I was alone in the middle of a Ramada Inn parking lot. I hurried in. At first blush the clerk thought I was a drunk, but recognition came quickly over his face. He'd been reading the newspaper.

"Mr. Murphy, what can I do?"

I said I wanted a locked room on the ground floor with a phone, and that I wasn't coming out until I heard a voice I could identify. He showed me to a room, and after I drew the curtains I called my wife, then Jim Minter.

It took just minutes until they were knocking on the door, but those were the longest minutes of the whole ordeal. The real moment of elation came when I heard my good friend Terry Adamson say, "Everything's OK, Reg. I'm here with the FBI. You can come out."

I was taken home and spent about 30 minutes with my family. From the heat of the trunk and not eating I'd lost 10 pounds in the 49 hours I'd been abducted. My slacks, shirt and blazer were filthy. My wife and daughters were shaken, but relieved. I hugged them and told them I had to go downtown with the FBI. My lawn was in ruins from all the cars and vans of newspaper and television reporters that had been camped there.

From photos of suspects I identified William Williams. He was arrested at his home early that morning, only six hours after he'd released me. All the money was recovered. He was convicted and sentenced to 40 years but served only nine. Despite the Colonel's claim that his army had operatives in major cities all over the country poised to engage in guerilla warfare, no one else was ever implicated in my kidnapping.

I now have some claustrophobia, but I've never suffered any nightmares. Once, 10 years ago, while walking in an outdoor mall in Atlanta, I thought I saw the Colonel, but it must have been a trick of the brain. I've told the story many times to many people, and I think unburdening myself so frequently has enabled me to shed any psychological baggage that might have ruined my life the way other people have had their lives ruined by trauma.

Two months after playing all that golf in my mind, I was on a real golf course in a charity event, paired with Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. On almost every hole spectators from the gallery asked for my autograph or to have a picture taken with me. Near the end of the round Sonny was incredulous: "Who the hell are you anyway?"

Apparently Sonny hadn't been reading the newspaper.

Photo: AP Photo