“I’m under the weather now,” Bob Goalby said. “At 92, you’re going to get that way.”
It was December 21, 2021. Goalby and I talked from time to time by phone. It started last August when I called him while doing research for a project I’m working on. He was gracious and I called him again, and he called me several times. On a couple of occasions, when I saw “Bob Goalby” on caller ID, I picked up and was met by silence, making me think he hit the wrong number on his contact list and was confused.
But on Dec. 21, I made the call and Goalby was up for talking. He regularly asked me to repeat myself. “I have four sets of hearing pieces and none of them are worth a damn,” he said. His voice was gravelly: old age had roughened the smooth delivery he had when he worked for 14 years as a golf commentator at NBC back in the day.
Goalby was in a nursing facility in Belleville, Illinois, his hometown near St. Louis where he has lived his whole life. Until just before turning 90, Goalby was active and playing some golf. Last April, he attended the Masters Champions Dinner. He won’t return. The former Masters champion died Thursday at home, having chosen to spend his last hours around family.
One of the consequences of living long past your actuarially allotted time is that, if you’re not Betty White, non-family members forget that you’re still around, even if you were once a little bit famous.
Goalby was one of the best golfers of his generation. In the final round of the 1961 St. Petersburg Open, he birdied eight holes in a row to set a record that stood for 48 years. His win at St. Pete was his third in little over three months. “I thought I was going to be pretty good,” he told me. “I’m not bragging, but you have to think that way.”
Goalby was more than pretty good, with 11 regular tour victories and eight top-10 finishes in majors. However, in this day and age, that by itself won’t necessarily even get you an obituary. Billy Maxwell won the 1951 U.S. Amateur, and seven times on tour. Maxwell died Sept. 20, 2021, at age 92. I didn’t find out until Dec. 29, when somebody told me. That caused me to look online for a news obituary. I didn‘t find any. Only Legacy.com and Dignity Memorial death notices. One of the consequences of living long past your actuarially allotted time is that, if you’re not Betty White, non-family members forget that you’re still around, even if you were once a little bit famous.
Many of Goalby’s obituaries refer to his “controversial” victory at the 1968 Masters. As all but newcomers to golf history know, Roberto De Vicenzo signed off on a par 4 Tommy Aaron erroneously penciled on his scorecard, instead of the birdie 3 De Vicenzo actually made on the 17th hole of the final round. The result was De Vicenzo had to accept the score on his card, and Goalby won by a stroke instead of having to face De Vicenzo in an 18-hole playoff the next day. The uninformed may be led to believe that Goalby somehow stole a victory from the Argentinian, or that a green jacket fell into his lap.
“It was unfortunate for Roberto, but it was unfortunate for me as well because I didn’t get the credit I deserved,” Goalby said. He fired a final-round 66, the same as De Vicenzo. “I shot the fourth-lowest [72 hole] score ever at the time. I won within the rules. But I guess if we had a playoff it would have been better.”
This wasn’t the first time Goalby had expressed mixed feelings about April 14, 1968. Those feelings are understandable if one takes the time to look at CBS’s final round telecast, particularly the bizarre Butler Cabin interview. It’s easy to find online, and clocks in at only one hour and 17 minutes.
For a portion, it presented a compelling alternative reality, compared to the ultimate outcome, to the viewers who tuned in. On a split screen, viewers saw De Vicenzo rap in a 4-footer for a birdie on 17 at almost the exact moment Goalby sank a 12-foot putt for eagle on 15. At that point, both were 12 under par. De Vicenzo completed his round with a bogey on 18 to fall one back. A few minutes later, Goalby’s three-putt bogey on 17 left the two tied again at 11-under – as far as anyone knew at the time.
After hitting his 3-wood from the 18th tee into the trees on the right and getting a fortunate kick far back into the middle of the fairway, Goalby had a difficult, blind uphill shot from over 200 yards. He did well to shape a 3-iron onto the green, but well past the hole to the upper shelf. He faced a terrifying downhill 45-foot putt with a sweeping right-to-left break, which Goalby and viewers thought he needed to get down in two just to force the playoff CBS was already promoting for a 5 p.m. broadcast on Monday. The best Goalby could do was lag the putt low to four-and-a-half feet. The gallery was unimpressed: not a ripple of applause is heard as his ball comes to rest.
The remaining putt had an imperceptible break that has foiled unwary competitors over the decades. Goalby said he was thinking of the par putt he missed from a similar length on 17. He took out the break by dead-nailing his ball into the center of the cup.
“I stood over the putt, and I said to myself, ‘You choking so-and-so; stand up good like a man and hit the goddamn thing,’ ” Goalby said. “And I hit the most perfect putt you’ve ever seen.”
“We have a tie,” said Pat Summerall, doing his first Masters for CBS. “That has to be one of the great clutch putts of all time.”
Goalby looked relieved, not jubilant. He walked past De Vicenzo at the scorer’s table directly adjacent to the 18th green and said something like, “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.” De Vicenzo, however, did not respond. He watched the whole thing play out knowing what Goalby and the CBS audience did not – that he’d signed for one more stroke than he’d played and Goalby had already won. It was more than 10 minutes after Goalby’s final putt dropped before CBS started mentioning a potential problem with De Vicenzo’s card.
Goalby recounted how he learned there would be no playoff, that he was the Masters champion. While he was talking to Sam Snead, former Masters champ Cary Middlecoff, who was working for CBS, climbed out of the broadcast tower and walked over to him. “Bob, you won,” Middlecoff whispered. “De Vicenzo screwed up his card.”
“I want to congratulate Bobby Goalby to play so good. Maybe Mr. Goalby, it’s his fault I make a wrong thing with my scorecard because he give me so much pressure on the last few holes and I lose my brain.” – Roberto De Vicenzo
After Middlecoff’s clumsy messaging about what would be the signature moment of his life came the Butler Cabin interview – where Goalby looked more shell-shocked than pleased. The late Frank Chirkinian, the longtime producer of the CBS Masters telecasts, hated the Butler Cabin interviews with a passion because Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts and usually Bobby Jones, not professional commentators, presided and would ask the questions. “I would watch this with my face in my hands,” Chirkinian wrote in 2007, “but the club wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Even with its historical value, the 1968 interview is particularly cringeworthy. With Jones ailing, member and former USGA president John Winters interviewed De Vicenzo. After noting it was an unhappy birthday for De Vicenzo, Winters didn’t ask the obvious question every viewer wanted to know (what happened at the scorer’s table?). Instead, he went into a soliloquy about the galleries and missed chances and a now inconsequential eagle made on the first hole and mindlessly asked if he had any comments on the course and the play. To his credit, De Vicenzo answered the unasked question.
“I can’t forget what I do on the first hole and what I do on the last,” he said. “I am a professional for many years and never think what a stupid I am. Because when you play in a tournament, you have to check the scorecard very carefully. And I make the wrong thing today. I looked at the scorecard and, to tell the truth, I don’t see anything, I don’t see any numbers. I feel sorry for myself. I don’t think I get another chance to be so close to win this tournament like this week.
“I want to congratulate Bobby Goalby to play so good. Maybe Mr. Goalby, it’s his fault I make a wrong thing with my scorecard because he give me so much pressure on the last few holes and I lose my brain.”
Roberts interrupted and babbled about a round co-founder Bobby Jones and De Vicenzo played in Buenos Aires 20 years before. Roberts then said that he and Jones were “going to be busy trying to figure out some way to have two winners in place of our winner and runner-up. In our hearts, we will always regard you as one of the two winners of this tournament – without taking anything away from the new Masters champion.” In fact, Jones had already privately told Roberts that Goalby was the winner.
During the brief interview with Goalby, Winters mentioned his game-changing eagle on 15 but not the ballsy two-putt on 18. “That was the boost I needed,” Goalby said of his eagle.
As with De Vicenzo, Winters asked Goalby if there were any shots he would have liked to hit differently. After little more than a minute, while Goalby was articulately and sincerely expressing his regret to De Vincenzo – “it seems like it’s not really the way to win the golf tournament,” he said – Winters cut him off mid-sentence for the jacket presentation. After 1967 winner Gay Brewer hurriedly draped the green jacket on Goalby, and while Goalby was graciously congratulating Roberts on a well-run tournament, he was cut off in mid-sentence again, this time by broadcaster Frank Gifford, who wrapped up the Butler Cabin ceremony. Low amateur Vinny Giles was given more time and respect in the Butler Cabin than Goalby.
Goalby was the greatest all-around high school athlete in the history of Belleville. Golf was his fourth-best sport. As a catcher and sometimes pitcher, he led Belleville Township to the 1947 state championship, and drew the attention of major league scouts before making it clear that he intended to attend college. Goalby never really liked baseball, but played it to be with his friends. He was an all-conference guard on the basketball team.
Football is where Goalby made his mark. As a senior quarterback, he threw 20 touchdown passes, played defensive back, and in a 1946 Thanksgiving Day game against arch-rival East St. Louis High, he ran back a punt for a touchdown for the only points in a 6-0 win. The gridiron at Belleville West High School is named Bob Goalby Field.
He briefly attended the University of Illinois on a football scholarship, transferred to Southern Illinois and dropped out, went to trade school, was drafted into the Army and played quarterback on a Special Troops team. Goalby then had a brief stint as an assistant club pro in Darien, Connecticut, before trying the golf tour. He was slow coming out of the gate, not winning until the 1958 Greater Greensboro Open, when he was 29.
At the 1961 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, he finished second. “I didn’t putt well,” Goalby recalled. “I could have won the Open, but Gene Littler was a good player and beat me by one shot.” In the final round of the 1962 PGA Championship, he stalked playing partner Gary Player for 18 holes, shot 66 and again finished second by a single stroke, to Player. Almost 60 years later, Goalby was still haunted by a missed 10-inch putt earlier in the tournament. “I wanted to get out of the way and didn’t take my time,” he said. “I took the flag out myself.”
Goalby won in Hartford and Denver later in 1962. He pocketed a lot of checks but did not win again until the 1967 San Diego Open. After the 1968 Masters, Goalby won tournaments in 1969, 1970 and 1971. After he turned 50, he was a co-founder of the Senior PGA Tour and won twice, in 1981 and 1982. While continuing to play the Senior Tour, Goalby also was a well-regarded golf commentator on NBC.
I asked Goalby how he wanted to be remembered. “Well, just a guy who helped a lot of people,” he said.
Not an unusual sentiment, but one that does not necessarily fit Goalby’s persona when he played. He was known as hot-tempered and a cutthroat competitor. On the golf course, his handsome features usually were concealed by a scowl. One prominent pro used the adjectives “mean-spirited” and “miserable” to describe Goalby, recalling a tournament round where Goalby would only communicate with him through the volunteer scorekeeper.
A less well-known pro, Frank Boynton, offered a more balanced tale. After three rounds of the 1968 PGA Championship at torridly hot Pecan Valley in San Antonio, Texas, Boynton was five shots out of the lead. He learned with some dread that he would be grouped with Goalby and Dan Sikes in the final round.
“Goalby could hear a mouse peeing on cotton from 20 feet, so it was almost impossible to stay still enough,” Boynton told me. Sikes was known to be abrasive, but Boynton’s fears about the two turned out to be unfounded. “They were just delightful to play with that day. They were just like mother hens getting me in, and we all tied for eighth,” he recalled. “And I got to go to the Masters the next year as a result, but they were very helpful, which was very surprising because they were known for being very tough to play with.” It would be Boynton’s only Masters.
Goalby wouldn’t tell me about the people he helped, so it required some research. God will give him credit for what happened at a long-forgotten tournament, the 1960 Coral Gables Invitational, which The Miami Herald powerfully captured in words and photographs.
On the par-four 18th hole in the final round, Goalby had a two-shot lead over Dow Finsterwald. He was on the fringe in two, looking at a lag putt from off the green. Even if Goalby didn’t get his ball close, he would still have two putts. Victory was assured.
Until his young caddie, Walter Montgomery, stepped backwards and accidentally kicked Goalby’s ball five feet off the apron. Goalby promptly called a penalty on himself. Arnold Palmer, who was playing with Goalby, told him it was a two-stroke penalty, which was what Goalby thought. He walked over to PGA tour official Harvey Raynor to confirm and was relieved to learn the penalty was just one stroke. Covering the tournament for the Herald, Tommy Fitzgerald reported hearing a pro in the gallery drawl in a southern accent, “You-all woulda had a dead caddie if that had happened to me.” Fitzgerald also overheard a caddie say, “If that costs Goalby the tournament, he oughta give that [censored] a nickel.”
Montgomery buried his face in his right hand and was close to tears. He was well-aware of Goalby’s mercurial streak. But Goalby walked over to Montgomery and put his hand on his caddie’s shoulder. “Forget it, pardner,” he was heard to say. “Forget it.”
Now off the fringe and no longer able to putt, Goalby chipped with a 7-iron, but could only get to within about 5 feet – roughly the same distance as his putt at the 72nd hole of the 1968 Masters. As we would do eight years later at Augusta, Goalby drilled the ball into the cup.
“If he lost the tournament, I don’t know what I would have done,” Montgomery told reporters afterward. “I might have done something desperate. I know I’d never have gotten over it.”
On Dec. 29, I called Goalby again. His son, Kye Goalby, picked up. Kye and his brother, Kel Goalby, were visiting. Kye wasn’t sure his dad was up to talking, but put his phone on speaker mode. It turned out Bob was happy to talk. We had a lively four-way chat.
Bob mentioned an eating establishment called Pea Soup Andy’s that was a popular stopping point for pros driving from the Los Angeles Open to the Bing Crosby Clambake back in the 1950s and 1960s. “They had good food, plus pea soup,” Bob said. “It was a big place and easy to get in. Kind of a funny name.” So much so that Kye and Kel doubted there was such a place, until one of them happened upon it in Solvang a couple of years ago, still operating (its full name is Pea Soup Andersen’s).
I asked Bob if, as he stood over the putt in Coral Gables, he felt he was playing not just for himself, to win his second tour event, but also to help his distraught caddie. He paused. “I wasn’t thinking of Walter,” Bob said. “I was thinking of myself.”
Knowing where I was trying to go with my question, Kye, a golf course designer, suggested to his dad that he might also have had a more altruistic motive. Bob refused the bait. “He was down on the ground praying,” he said with a laugh. “He had a couple of things to lose. The tournament and his ass.”
Kye and Kel came to their father’s rescue. They told me Montgomery went on to a long career as a caddie and was still working a quarter-century later when they caddied for their father in Senior Tour events during the summer. “The other caddies used to give him shit about kicking your ball off the green and being a bad caddie and all that,” Kye told his dad, laughing. Bob interrupted. “They would make fun of him, but they were joking,” he said kindly.
Kel then told what his father did to help a number of his colleagues. Bob was active in tour politics going back to the 1960s and continued as a founder of the Senior Tour (now the PGA Tour Champions). The PGA Tour started its pension plan in 1978, but the Senior Tour not until 1990. In 1993, there were about 30 veterans who had played at least 10 years on the PGA Tour in the 1960s, and then for 10 years in the early days of the Senior Tour, but who fell through the cracks, not qualifying for either pension under the rules.
“There were guys who were broke,” said Kel, a private wealth manager. His father, who was not in need of a pension, flew to PGA Tour headquarters at his own expense and cajoled commissioner Tim Finchem into providing for the old pros, including a generous stipend for those no longer physically able to play. “When my dad called Jack Fleck to tell him, he started crying because he was broke and living off of Social Security,” Kel said.
Kel also related a story about how Tony Jacklin wrote a published piece many years ago that disparaged Goalby, in regard to Jacklin’s ineligibility to play on the Senior Tour for a time. Jacklin blamed Goalby for the rules. Not long after, at the Masters, Goalby saw Jacklin, an honorary non-competing invitee, sitting by himself on the grounds.
“My dad went over to him, shook his hand, and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you have lunch with me in the Champions locker room.’ ” Kel recalled. “After the fact, I said, ‘Dad, why did you do that?’ And he said, ‘Because I understand how he felt. I wouldn’t have wanted to be left out either from the Senior Tour.’ That’s who my dad is.” The rules were changed and Jacklin played the Senior Tour.
Kel related another story involving Mark Rolfing. Goalby told Kel that when a then-unknown Rolfing started working for NBC as a golf commentator in the 1980s, at a production meeting, his father asked, in Rolfing’s presence, why he was even working with him. Kel considered it to be a rude remark and wondered why his dad would choose to tell a story that portrayed himself in an unflattering light. He learned there was more to the story.
“I met Mark Rolfing at a fundraiser a couple of years ago,” Kel said. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Your dad helped me out immensely in my career. You know, your dad was right. He told me what was happening and made it clear that I had to improve my game. A month later, I got a handwritten letter from your dad apologizing for the way he asked the question, and telling me he knew I was going to be a great announcer and if he ever needed anything to please contact him directly.’ Of course, my dad never told me that part of the story, but that’s just who he is.”
There are worse things than having a rough exterior. And there are far worse things you can say about a man than that he can be blunt, is honest to a fault, follows the rules and insists that others do the same, but is not afraid to try to change the rules when needed.
Finally, there are few greater attributes than helping others without taking credit or talking about it.
Godspeed to you, Bob Goalby.
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