Waywards Shots — The Worst Masters Ever

Worst. Masters. Ever.

There is not even any debate about it. Fifty years later, the 1968 version stands out as a singularly awful golf tournament. The event changed lives – not for the better – and damaged reputations. The result seemed so outrageous that it distracted us from many other outrages.

That took some doing. Merely listing the negative milestones of ‘68 doesn’t really convey how violent and unhinged the world felt back then. Assassinations, demonstrations and a hugely unpopular war; the wind often smelled of tear gas.

Maybe we looked forward to the Masters on TV a little more than usual. But before our heroes even got to Augusta National’s first tee, evil thunder rumbled again: on the Saturday before, in Memphis, a sniper’s bullet ended the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The tour event in Charlotte, already delayed because of a rainout, had to finish with 36 holes on Monday, because President Johnson had declared Sunday a national day of mourning for the civil rights icon.

The crowds were relatively small and somber all week, and neither Jack nor Arnie won, but three men from the chorus produced scintillating golf. You may not recall Bert Yancey, the West Point dropout fighting a death match with manic depression; or Bob Goalby, the handsome former football star; or Roberto De Vicenzo, the winningest professional golfer in the world. Therefore, may I refer you to my book, The Lost Masters, which reveals all about that week and its aftermath.

De Vicenzo finished the tournament birdie-bogey – three and five– but his marker, Tommy Aaron, recorded four and five. No big deal, such mistakes happen all the time – but Roberto didn’t catch it. He signed the card. A player authorizing a lower score on a hole is disqualified. The penalty for an incorrect higher score is the score itself. Although thousands had eyeballs on De Vicenzo’s three on 17, and about 20 million more saw the par on TV, he’d have to count the four. Thus, he fell out of a tie with Goalby. They would not play off for the title the next day.

Or would they? Although the Masters was and is conducted under USGA rules, it is not a USGA tournament, and over the years it had found some legal wiggle room. Two outstanding examples involved Arnold Palmer. Another ruling exempted Dow Finsterwald from the letter of the law. The latter decision, in 1960, recognized the host club’s culpability. An important concept, that, because until 1969, Augusta National did not provide a scoring area for the combatants to go over their cards, just a metal patio table and a couple of chairs by the ropes on 18. And no rules official. And no time. While Roberto should have been checking the arithmetic, some functionary was at his shoulder, telling the golfer that the TV boys were waiting to interview him in the Butler cabin.

The decision on what to do about Roberto’s scorecard was made by a dying man. Club and tournament co-founder Bobby Jones, was attending – from his bed – his last Masters. Ill with the flu and incapacitated by a neurological disease that would cause his death three years later, Jones and his crew required about 20 minutes to rule. None of the wise men brought up the precedents, including one from the 1957 British Open. Britannia waived the rules. Jones and company did not.

Don’t announce a winner or talk about a playoff, CBS producer Frank Chirkinian told Pat Summerall, a most peculiar and stress-inducing order for an announcer making his Masters debut. So Summerall vamped. He read aloud the 72-hole scores for everyone on the leaderboard – except Roberto’s – then read them again.

They made De Vicenzo take the extra shot. A firestorm ensued.

“Roberto got all the sympathy,” I wrote. “Goalby got all the shit” – including death threats. Bob heard boos from galleries in subsequent events, including at the Masters the next year. Know-nothing communicators accused him of cheating, of altering Roberto’s card somehow; preposterous, since they weren’t even paired together. “He’s the only guy in history who won a major tournament with a pencil,” wrote veteran columnist Jim Murray. Not Jim’s finest hour. Goalby had done no such thing.

Instead of the entertainment and distraction we craved, golf forced its way into the lineup of lousy things in 1968.

It all happened 50 years ago. Don’t expect a parade.


Curt Sampson is the author of 15 books, including the bestsellers “Hogan” and “The Masters.” His current book is “Furious George,” written with NBA coach George Karl.