AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Never before or since, has a major golf tournament, and this was the esteemed Masters championship, ended with such a jarring jolt of controversy. It was a stormy scene for those of us present that has not been easily forgotten.
When a sports event concludes, the result is usually known. Wire services flash the name of the winner and television provides a picture. But not in the 1968 Masters when Bob Goalby and Roberto De Vicenzo actually wound up tied after 72 holes, yet this was both right and wrong.
A playoff round would follow the next day in what was then an era before the sudden-death shootout came into vogue. Bedlam was abounding. Confusion prevailed and for 20 minutes there was no verdict. It was suddenly announced that instead of a deadlock De Vicenzo had cost himself the chance for a playoff by virtue of inadvertently submitting an improper score.
The traditional green coat and the prestige went to Goalby. For De Vicenzo, it was a bitter second-place defeat but he accepted the decision without anger because the infraction was written out in black and white.
The error on a scorecard, a '4' when it should have been a '3,' unfortunately decided the outcome. A shock of disbelief engulfed the hallowed golfing sanctuary that is the Augusta National Club. Members of the press, the public and other players anguished over the ambiguity. How could it have happened?
For De Vicenzo, it was the worst mistake of a career that had spanned the globe. It was his 45th birthday, an Easter Sunday, and he should have been happy but instead was standing around admonishing himself with these painful words, "What a stupid I am."
Before De Vicenzo had started out on his fateful round, he promised, in halting English, "If I win, I buy everybody big Coca-Cola." But he had lost the Masters in a way that was unprecedented, which tested all sense of comprehension.
There were no grounds for protest or reason to request a recount. It was all over. De Vicenzo had to accept the wrong tally for signing the erroneous scorecard. In truth, he was an innocent victim of a system that has been challenged but never altered.
In tournaments, the players keep each other's scores and then attest them with their own signatures later to stamp it official. Tommy Aaron, paired with De Vicenzo, wrote a par-4 instead of a birdie-3 on the 17th hole for Roberto and, when he signed it later, it could not be rectified.
De Vicenzo shot a 65 but, because of Aaron's error, he was given the 66. This meant, under Rule 38, Section 3, that once he put his name on the scorecard it was official regardless of the consequence and even if it was wrong it had to remain as he had approved.
Meanwhile, Aaron, who five years later was to win the Masters, felt distraught over the role he played in confusing the issue. The victory didn't make Goalby too happy either.
"I regret I didn't win it outright or in a playoff," the rugged, sincere Goalby explained. "But the U.S. Golf Association makes the rules and I abide by them. A rule is a rule, like when you hit a ball out of bounds by half an inch. It's still out of bounds. You must accept the ruling."
Goalby had been under par all four rounds, 70-70-71-66 -- 277. De Vicenzo had matched the final figure but because of the mathematical blunder by Aaron he was a loser by one shot. Losses don't come any tougher than that.
To guard against a repeat of such a momentous mistake, tournaments now have a tent, or a portable booth, where the golfers go to collect their thoughts after leaving the 18th hole and then submit the scores. They are away from the crowd and can concentrate on reviewing the cards.
The episode has created 25 years of sympathy for De Vicenzo while the cheers for Goalby have been muted, and this is unfair. A signed scorecard is a binding contract, a stipulation of golf that has been accepted for more than two centuries.
Recalling the 18th, where De Vicenzo bogeyed and Goalby parred, the winner, trying to play it safe, took a 3-wood off the tee and pushed it dead right. The ball hit a magnolia tree and bounced into the fairway or Goalby may have been looking at a five or a six.
There just had to be a higher power in the golfing heavens that wanted Bob Goalby to win, even if on a technicality.