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Open Secret In 1999 Southern Hills, the site of next week's U.S. Open, had swastikas and obscenities burned into its greens with acid. The case was hushed up, but last week the man charged with the crime, still at large, spoke freely with SI

June 11, 2001
June 11, 2001

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June 11, 2001

Open Secret In 1999 Southern Hills, the site of next week's U.S. Open, had swastikas and obscenities burned into its greens with acid. The case was hushed up, but last week the man charged with the crime, still at large, spoke freely with SI

By Ivan Maisel Special Reporting by George Dohrmann and Don Yaeger

The annual blues festival in Eureka Springs has been a tradition
in that Ozarks resort town of 1,900 in northwest Arkansas since
1988, when Rich Jones, a guitarist who lives there, hatched the
idea. The 2001 festival was held last weekend, and on Saturday
night, midway through a lackluster set by the Jones Brothers (no
relation) Band, Rich climbed onto the stage in Basin Park.
Wearing a hat inscribed with 2001 U.S. OPEN SOUTHERN HILLS and
playing a Samick guitar he had borrowed from one of the other
musicians, Jones launched into a searing rendition of a blues
tune called You Can't Scandalize My Name. "The song's fitting,"
Jones said after he had finished. "I play it everywhere."

This is an article from the June 11, 2001 issue Original Layout

The 38-year-old Jones's name was most recently scandalized in
Tulsa, only 149 miles west of Eureka Springs, where there has
been a warrant out for his arrest for 20 months. On Sept. 30,
1999, he was charged in absentia with a felony, malicious injury
to property. Tulsa police believe that Jones is the vandal who 97
days earlier had destroyed 12 greens at Southern Hills Country
Club, site of next week's U.S. Open, by spraying acid on them in
what's believed to be the largest act of vandalism to a major
golf championship venue in history. Jones, who had worked on the
grounds crew at Southern Hills, left Oklahoma after the crime,
and as recently as last week Tulsa authorities said they did not
know his whereabouts. But last Saturday, during an interview with
SI at a Eureka Springs bar, he denied any wrongdoing and said one
of his dreams "was to set cups at the U.S. Open. Man, I miss that
place. A day doesn't go by that I don't think about it."

They think about Jones every day at Southern Hills, too, because
of the promise he allegedly burned into one of the greens in
four-foot-high letters. "Who's to say he's not going to come back
here and do it again?" says Nick Sidorakis, the club's general
manager. "Who's to say we don't have a nut out there who says,
'Look at the kind of [attention] I can get.' That's what we've
been worried about."

On the morning of June 26, 1999, a Saturday and the final day of
Swingaroo, Southern Hills's annual member-guest tournament and a
highlight of the season, Sidorakis drove through the club's front
gate at 6:30. Before he reached the English-country-manor
clubhouse, John Szklinski, the course superintendent, waved him
to a stop. Szklinski took him to the 4th green, almost directly
below the clubhouse, on which this message had been sprayed:
F--- YOU NICK AND JOHN! BE BACK FOR OPEN 2001. Szklinski informed
Sidorakis that the 4th green was not the only one that had been
vandalized. Swastikas had been burned on numerous greens and tees
on the Championship course as well as on the West nine (Southern
Hills has 27 holes). All told, 12 greens--eight on the
Championship 18, four on the West course--and three tee boxes had
been hit.

At first, no one knew what chemical had been sprayed on the
greens and tees, but "you could see the damage in the dew
pattern," says Todd Towery, one of Szklinski's two assistants. It
wasn't long before it became clear that the perpetrator had used
some sort of acid. "By 10:30," Towery says, "the grass had gone
into total meltdown."

Jones became the prime suspect two days later. He had made no
secret of his dislike of Sidorakis and Szklinski, the boss who
had pushed Jones and the rest of the staff hard since having been
hired by Sidorakis seven months earlier. While no one at Southern
Hills will speak ill of the previous super, Bob Randquist, the
club decided that Randquist had let the course's slip show, and
with the Open, awarded in 1996, on the horizon, that wouldn't do.
From the start Szklinski expected more effort from the holdovers
from Randquist's staff. "I figured he'd have some issues," says
Kevin Hicks, a former assistant to Szklinski and now the
superintendent at Hillcrest Country Club in Boise, Idaho. "Nobody
is more demanding than John. He would say to me, 'Hey, these guys
don't do what I want them to do.'"

Szklinski tried to get the crew's attention by eliminating the
15-minute breaks Randquist had sanctioned every morning and
afternoon. That angered Jones. "John came in with all the guns
blasting," Jones said last week. "[Nick and John] made a point to
disrespect people and make our lives miserable." Jones said
Sidorakis and Szklinski both called him "a basket case and an
airhead," although Jones admitted that he once drove a golf cart
so fast that when he made a turn, a coworker who was riding with
him flew out of the passenger seat and broke her leg.

Szklinski also hired a number of Hispanics, which upset Jones,
according to a coworker. "Some people felt as if they didn't need
to lay sod because we were bringing in a Hispanic staff [to do
that]," Towery says. Jones says he's not a "racist or a
skinhead." Another member of the grounds crew told Tulsa police
that Jones had made threatening remarks about Sidorakis and
Szklinski before June 26. "They're going to get theirs," Jones
allegedly said.

Jones usually had Saturdays off, but Szklinski scheduled him to
work on the 26th, the final day of Swingaroo. According to the
police report, on June 25 Szklinski had reprimanded Jones for not
doing his work properly. That night Jones told another member of
the crew he wouldn't show up for work the next day. However,
Jones did show up. In fact, to save money, he had been sleeping
on club grounds, in the cab of one of the maintenance trucks, for
a couple of weeks, which police say shows he had the opportunity
to commit the crime. Jones says Szklinski and several coworkers
knew he was sleeping in the truck. Sidorakis and Szklinski say
they wouldn't have allowed Jones to live on the property had they
known.

Jones says he went to sleep on June 25 at 10 p.m. and, upon
arising the next morning, began to set up the back nine, as he
had been instructed to do. The only damage he saw was a swastika
burned into the 9th tee. "Who could write in the dark?" he says.
"I don't even know how to spell swastika."

On June 28 Jones called Szklinski at 12:19 a.m. and left a
message saying that he had quit. Jones said he resigned because
"at $7.75 an hour [his rate of pay], when I saw everyone go
berserk [over the damage], I thought, I'm not going to fix this."

Police soon discovered that Jones had a criminal record.
According to the Carroll County (Ark.) prosecutor's office, in
May 1996 Jones had been accused of "threatening to cause death or
serious physical injury" to Frank Birchfield. Jones described the
incident as the culmination of a "seven-year feud with a
next-door neighbor." In November, Jones was convicted of
terroristic threatening, a misdemeanor, and sentenced to a year
of unsupervised probation and ordered to pay a small fine and
court costs totaling $850. In May 1997 Jones allegedly attempted
to run over Birchfield's two daughters with his car and a warrant
was issued for his arrest on charges of violating his probation,
a class D felony, and first-degree assault, a class A
misdemeanor. Divorced and the father of a boy who's now 11, Jones
moved to Tulsa.

Frightened by the message seared on the 4th green and with the
help of Tulsa police, who also feared copycats, Southern Hills
did its best to maintain a news blackout. Mention of the attack
didn't appear in any newspaper until a small wire-service account
ran in several papers on July 14, 1999. Four days later the Tulsa
World wrote a story outlining the club's plans to fix the damage.
On Sept. 30, when Jones was charged in Tulsa County District
Court, the proceedings went unreported. As late as last month,
when SI requested the public documents pertaining to Jones's
case, Tulsa police at first refused to release them.

The club has been more forthcoming on the measures taken to
repair the damage. In a matter of days after the attack, Southern
Hills had narrowed its options for fixing the greens on the
Championship course to three: restore only the damaged greens,
reseed all 18 greens or core out (completely rebuild) all the
greens. If the club chose the first option, the patterns made by
the acid might still show, and no one wanted to risk seeing
bentgrass swastikas from the NBC blimp. Coring out the greens
would also be risky because mapping their undulations and then
precisely rebuilding them might take too much time. (To survive
the winter, the greens would have had to have been rebuilt and
reseeded by mid-October.) Szklinski and Tim Moraghan, the USGA
director of agronomy, agreed that reseeding all 18 greens was the
best solution. "If you reseed only the damaged greens," Szklinski
says, "you have eight greens that are going to read differently.
You need to have a matched set."

Southern Hills closed the Championship course on Aug. 16, 1999.
Twelve days later airtight tarps were placed over the greens, and
methyl bromide, a toxic fumigant, was pumped under them. As the
gas dissipated into the soil, the grass turned brown and died. As
the tarps were being removed, a postcard from Slovakia arrived at
the club addressed to the maintenance staff. "I'm takin [sic] you
all down for slander, your cash and homes are mine! Ya bastards,"
the postcard said. It was signed Rich Jones. Jones admits that he
sent the card, saying he did so because "I heard some of the
things they were saying about me." Police say the postcard is
another piece of circumstantial evidence.

According to Jones, he remained in Europe for three months and
then, in December 1999, moved to California, where he was a
locker room attendant at Shadow Ridge Country Club in Vista for
about a year. At Shadow Ridge he met Steve Mata, a vice president
of leadership promotions for Titleist. Jones played guitar at a
party at Mata's house on Dec. 15, 2000, during the annual
Nightmare Before Christmas tournament at Shadow Ridge. "Mark
O'Meara was there. He enjoyed it," Jones says. "I met Sergio
Garcia there." Mata later gave Jones a set of clubs. Mata didn't
know that Jones was wanted in two states. "I'd do whatever I
could to help him out," Mata says, "and I still consider him a
good friend." Jones left California this winter and returned to
Eureka Springs, where he's a member of the maintenance crew at
nearby Holiday Island Country Club.

When Southern Hills closed its course, it took advantage of the
downtime by replacing the irrigation system, which had been
installed for the 1977 U.S. Open, and by dropping five miles of
new drainage pipes. The club hired Keith Foster, the architect
who had just restored another Perry Maxwell-designed course,
Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, to perform USGA-requested work on
some tees and bunkers. Altogether, one night of vandalism
resulted in $2.9 million of work. Most of the money came from
insurance and a $1.7 million loan backed by projected revenue
from the Open. When asked who he thinks vandalized the course,
Jones says the club hired someone to do it to cash in on the
insurance. Sidorakis finds that theory laughable. "Got to shift
the blame somewhere," he says.

The $2.9 million doesn't include the $1.3 million it cost to
construct three new maintenance buildings after a fire on the
night of Feb. 4, 2000, destroyed the club's old one. "I live in
Jenks, which is 10 miles south of here," Szklinski says. "I came
over a hill in Jenks that night and could see the smoke." Arson
was suspected, but investigators determined that faulty
electrical wiring started the fire. Regardless of the cause,
Szklinski was devastated. "Let me take your Rolodex and throw it
away," he says, explaining the loss. "Everything I use in the
course of my work was lost."

The refurbished course opened on June 8, 2000, a year and six
days before the first shot will be played at the 2001 Open.
Because of the labors of Szklinski and his crew, neither the acid
nor the fire has left a scar on the course. "There won't be a
blemish," Szklinski says. "The course will be mint." Being closed
for 10 months, Towery says, "really did the course a favor." He
isn't the only person at Southern Hills to say that, but no one
is comfortable with the idea that the favor came by way of a
felony.

The Tulsa police and Southern Hills seem more interested in
keeping Jones away from Tulsa than in bringing him to justice.
"If they've got all this evidence, why don't they come and get
me?" Jones says. "I'd love to fight them, but I don't have the
money to go back there and do that."

On Monday, after SI told Tulsa police where to find Jones, Cpl.
Tom Fultz said, "We do not extradite from out of state for that
type of felony. If he shows up next week, if he comes back to
Oklahoma, we will put him in jail." W.K. Warren Jr., the chairman
of the William K. Warren Foundation and the Southern Hills member
who chaired the club's ad hoc committee that secured the Open,
says Southern Hills isn't interested in suing Jones. "That costs
money, and there were no eyewitnesses," he says. "There's only
circumstantial evidence. I don't see a lot to gain by bringing
[the vandal] to court other than financial restitution, and that
would be difficult to collect."

On June 11 Southern Hills will turn itself over to the USGA. That
same day Jones is scheduled to have a revocation hearing in
Carroll County District Court for violating the terms of his 1996
probation.

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ANASTASIA VASILAKIS; PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER In 1999 Southern Hills, the U.S. Open site, had swastikas and obscenities burned into its greens [T of C]COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ANASTASIA VASILAKIS; PHOTOGRAPH BY FRED VUICH/GOLF MAGAZINECOLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Jones wonders, If they've got all this evidence, why don't they come get me?COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Taskmaster Szklinski irked his crew by eliminating its twice-daily breaks.COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER The club won't pursue Jones, says Warren (in suit), because "that costs money."