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Ashway: Bob Goalby, the tragic Masters champion
Bob Goalby
Photo courtesy Denton Ashway

Tragic Masters champion Bob Goalby passed away last week in his hometown of Belleville, Ill. He was 92.

Goalby remains the only person in history to earn the title “tragic Masters champion.” It remains a story unique in the history of major championship golf.

On Easter Sunday in 1968, Goalby shot the round of his life. He birdied the 13th and 14th holes, and then pulled out a 3-iron for his second shot to the par-5 15th. The ball came to rest eight feet from the pin, and Goalby made the putt for eagle.

He finished his round with a 66 for a tournament total of 277, 11 strokes under par. Goalby had finished tied with Roberto de Vicenzo of Argentina, who had completed his round moments before Goalby.

De Vicenzo had finished with a dazzling final round of 65 but was upset with himself for finishing with a bogey on 18. He signed his scorecard in a fit of pique without carefully analyzing the numbers.

A terrible mistake was quickly discovered. Tommy Aaron of Gainesville, de Vicenzo’s playing partner and keeper of his official scorecard, had given de Vicenzo a par-4 on the 17th hole. In fact, de Vicenzo had birdied that hole.

Under the strictly adhered to Rules of Golf, since de Vicenzo had already signed his scorecard, he was officially credited with a closing 66, instead of the 65 he actually shot. This gave him a tournament total of 278, 10 under par. One shot more than Goalby’s total.

This led de Vicenzo to utter one of the most famous laments in the history of sports: “What a stupid I am.”

All of which made Bob Goalby the 1968 Masters Champion.

“The presentation ceremony wasn’t what it could have been,” Goalby told Golf Digest in 2018. “I sat next to Roberto and did what I could to console him. There’s video of me patting him on the leg.

“I felt no elation, nothing like you’d expect from winning the biggest tournament of your life. It was awkward. It was tragic for Roberto, but it was equally unfortunate for me. I never did get full credit for what I’d done. I played damned well, especially the last day.”

Fellow Tour golfer Frank Beard echoed those sentiments in a Sports Illustrated interview published shortly after that Masters. “The guy you have to feel sorriest for is Goalby. A man gets few chances in his career to win a big one, but to win one and have it tainted like this is terrible. It wasn’t as if Roberto didn’t know the rules.”

In a 1989 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Goalby said, “I’ve always felt like the victim as much or more than Roberto. None of the problems with scorecards were my fault. But I have forever been singled out as the guy who won the Masters because of some damn clerical mistake. I don’t think I ever got credit for what I did that week.”

De Vicenzo and the rest of the golfers on tour never considered Goalby a tainted champion, but many golf fans did.

“I still have a thousand letters in a box at home saying I’m the worst guy that ever lived,” Goalby told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1998. “One fellow wrote, ‘They ought to put you and Sonny Liston in cement and drop you in the ocean.’”

The ’68 Masters would be Goalby’s only major victory. He tied for second in the 1961 US Open, one stroke behind Gene Littler. He also finished second at the 1962 PGA championship, one stroke behind Gary Player. And he was a member of the 1963 Ryder Cup team that played at East Lake when it was the Atlanta Athletic Club course.

Robert George Goalby was born on March 14, 1929 in Belleville, which is near St. Louis. He was a star quarterback in high school, where the field is now named for him. An excellent baseball player, he attended the University of Illinois, and then served in the Army.

“I learned to play golf by watching the swings of those I caddied for,” Goalby told the Missouri Golf Post in 2016. “Very few of my buddies played because it was so expensive. I only got serious about golf after I got out of the Army and was sort of at loose ends.”

Goalby won 11 tournaments between 1958 and 1971. Most of today’s fans remember him as an on-course commentator for 14 years on NBC’s golf telecasts. But he left several other legacies.

Goalby was an activist. From ’66 to ’68, he was instrumental in leading the break between the Professional Golfers Association of America [club pros] and the PGA Tour Professionals. This led to the lucrative and entertaining PGA Tour that we’re familiar with today.

“When you look at how successful it has been and all the money these guys play for now, so much of it came from those days,” Goalby told Golf.com in 2018.

In January 1980, Goalby joined Sam Snead, Gardner Dickinson, Julius Boros, Don January, and Dan Sikes in laying out the framework for the Senior Tour, which is now the PGA Tour Champions. Goalby later won three senior tournaments.

In the office of his Belleville home, Goalby kept a framed 1968 letter from Bobby Jones, the founder of the Masters. “I was particularly thrilled by your exquisite second shot to the 15th, which was the finest I have seen played to that hole,” the letter read in part. “I ask you to always remember that you won the tournament under the Rules of Golf, and by superlative play.”