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When Golf Met Terrorism

This year’s World Amateur Team Championship in Buenos Aires is already historic. It is the first time the event has not only made a return trip to the same country, but also to the same golf course, albeit 38 years later. The first time the world’s best amateurs traveled to Argentina was October of 1972. 

It was an event they would never forget. For it proved to be the only time in history that golf came face to face with terrorism. 

The highly favored Americans that year included Texas sensation Ben Crenshaw, amateur veteran Vinny Giles, Mark Hayes and Martin West. Giles had played on the 1970 Eisenhower Cup team, but for the others, it was a new experience. Crenshaw had never been to South America and was giddy at the prospect of representing his country in an event coordinated by the USGA “to promote unity and goodwill” through golf. 

Unfortunately, those visions of unity and harmony vanished on Tuesday, October 17.

The world was very different then. Henry Kissinger was in Paris that morning negotiating with the North Vietnamese. Judge John J. Sirica was about to place a gag order on the Watergate case. The Friday before, a Uruguayan plane carrying 45 passengers, most of them students and rugby players, crashed in the Andes. The survivors lived for two months by cannibalizing the dead, a story that spawned a best-selling book and blockbuster movie. And five short months before that, Islamic terrorists had stormed the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany, killing 11 Israeli athletes.

Those thoughts couldn’t have been further from the golfers’ minds. The U.S. women’s team of Jane Booth, Laura Baugh and Mary Budke had won the Espirito Santo Cup the previous week, beating strong Argentine and Canadian teams. Mrs. Robert M. Monstead, the non-playing captain, had given the American girls the option of staying over to watch the men, but a week in South America had proven to be more than enough. They voted unanimously to leave.

Crenshaw got back from his practice round that Tuesday in time to give Baugh a moment-too-long congratulatory hug and kiss before the women set out for the airport. Then Crenshaw headed to the fifth floor of the Sheraton Buenos Aires for a shower and little putting practice on the newly installed hotel carpet before dinner.

The opening ceremonies were scheduled for the following morning, and as defending champions, the Americans would be the center of attention. Giles knew this, so after his practice round he took his wife, Key, into downtown for lunch and a little shopping. Hayes was resting in his room, and West meandered out into the corridor where Crenshaw was flirting with the daughter of a USGA official in between 60-foot putts down the hallway. A couple of floors up, Nick Weslock, of Burlington, Ont., a member of the Canadian team, stood under a hot shower, thinking about the Olivos Golf Club and the bumpy 45-minute bus ride between the Sheraton and the course.

At 4:15 p.m. the calm shattered. The hammer of a cheap alarm clock in room 2204 struck a bell, closing a circuit and detonating a neatly wrapped bundle of dynamite hidden in a canvas bag. The explosion shook buildings a mile away, and the top floor of the Sheraton all but vanished. 

“It shook everything,” Hayes remembered. “I ran to the window and there were mattresses, sheets, towels, wallboard, all sorts of debris falling onto the awning and the circular driveway outside.” 

According to Weslock, “I jumped out of the shower and saw that my rear window was gone.”

West and Crenshaw looked at each other for a second, neither realizing what had happened. “There wasn’t mass hysteria,” West said. “We really didn’t know what had happened. My biggest concern was the roads. They were so windy and narrow that I wasn’t sure the fire trucks and ambulances could get through to the hotel.” 

Hayes ran out into the hallway. As an active-duty Specialist Fourth Class in the U.S. Army, who had been given a week’s leave to play in the event, his training kicked in and he set out to evacuate everyone from the floor. There was only one problem: “We couldn’t get out,” he said. “Obviously, the elevators didn’t work, but the doors to the emergency stairways were locked. We didn’t know what was in store for us.”

Five blocks away, Giles had just walked out of Botticelli Leather Goods where he had spent $16 on a pair of low-cut tasseled loafers.

“At first we didn’t know what it was, but there was smoke and sirens everywhere,” he said. “It was like the whole world was on fire. My most vivid memory is coming back down the hill toward the hotel and seeing a convoy of military trucks cordoning off the area. Soldiers were piling out and prodding people back. We were already getting reports that at least one person was dead and a dozen or more were injured. With executive committee members and wives, we had at least a dozen people down there in addition to the team.” 

The one fatality would later be confirmed. Lois Crozier, a 36-year-old travel agent from Vancouver was killed instantly in the blast. She had been writing at a desk in her room across the hall from room 2204. Her husband, Gerry, an optician, who had been napping on the bed, suffered broken bones and contusions and was rushed to a nearby hospital. 

Back on the fifth floor, Hayes finally found a fire escape, and he was able to get everybody out of the building. By then the Army had taken control of the area. Doug Roxburgh, another member of the Canadian team, took an eight-millimeter camera to the 22nd floor the day after the bombing. He said, “Essentially the army had control of the country and it didn’t take long for armed guards to take over the hotel.”

Officials would later find four more explosive devices similar to the first. They were supposed to go off simultaneously after the first blast, once fire, rescue, and security personnel were inside, thus maximizing casualties. The first blast disrupted the detonators of the other four devices. “They wanted to bring the entire building down,” Weslock said. “If those other devices had gone off, none of us would be here.” 

Those sorts of things were not unusual in Argentina at the time. The country was in the beginning stages of what would become known as the Dirty War with supporters of then-exiled president Juan Peron taking on the ruling military government. According to Able Dimont, who was the Buenos Aires bureau chief for UPI in the 1970s, “Members of the Peronista Revolutionary Vanguard regularly targeted golf courses, because golf was considered a symbol of the aristocracy. Other groups, like the Marxist ERPs and the Peronista group Montoneros, consistently attacked American interests in Buenos Aires because America was seen as a suppressing capitalist interest.”

As if that political unrest were not enough, the World Amateur Counsel had selected the most inappropriate week imaginable for a golf event. “October 17 is Juan Peron Day,” Dimont said. “It was the anniversary of Peron’s ascension to power. Peron was preparing to return to Argentina after being exiled in Spain, so his supporters were attacking anything and everything American. The Sheraton bombing was part of an organized terrorist campaign against American interests.”

The State Department did not issue travel advisories in the early 1970s as they do today. According to Christopher Lamora of the Bureau of Consulate Affairs, “Before the late 1970s advisories were issued on an ad hoc basis.” Which meant someone from the USGA or one of the players would have had to contact the State Department about safety in Argentina. It was a call that no one made. 

“We didn’t know anything about Peronistas,” Crenshaw said. “It was certainly out of the blue.”

Nor, it seemed, was anyone sure how to react afterward. “We got a cable from the State Department afterward saying it was up to us, but that we should probably leave,” Crenshaw said. “Obviously, we chose to stay.” 

“I wanted to go home,” Giles said. “Ward Foshay (of the USGA) met with us and said the Argentineans assured them the matter was under control. It was something of a political issue with the USGA.”

Thirty-eight years later, it still is. When asked about the incident for this article, current USGA executive director, David Fay, said, “To infer that the Sheraton Hotel was targeted because of the World Amateur Team Championship is almost laughable. They had no idea about the World Amateur Team Championship. If terrorists said, ‘There’s a World Amateur Team Championship going on, so let’s target the Sheraton Hotel,’ in a warped way you could see, ‘Gee, if only that were the case, because that event just doesn’t get enough publicity.’ ” 

The Americans stayed, and successfully defended their title, winning by five shots over Australia. But none of the teammates remembers much about the tournament. They all have vivid recollections of the bombing, however.

“Because we were the defending champions they put us up on a pedestal during the opening ceremony,” Giles said. “That’s when I was really scared. All I could think about was some crazy fool out in the bushes with a machine gun who could mow us down at any minute.”

There were no further incidents that week, nor has golf come that close to terrorism in the 1,748 weeks since. But with numerous international events on the horizon, it is good to remember that even a genteel sport like golf is not immune from the dangers of the world. 

“Looking back on it now, and knowing about the other bombs,” Crenshaw said, “well, we’re very lucky to be here.” 


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