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Interview with Bob Goalby

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One day last summer I was riding around watching the play at a Gateway PGA event. I pulled up next to the “rules” cart of my friend Bob “Shogie” Shogren, PGA rules official par excellence and the Rules guy in charge of the event. We were talking about some of the Rules Shogie knew the average golfer didn’t have a good grasp of when I asked, pretty much out of the blue, if Shogie knew Bob Goalby.

“Oh, sure,” he said. “I’ve known Bob for many years. He’s a really good guy. I can try to help you set up a meeting if you’d like.”

I said I would like Shogie’s help, and we eventually set up a lunch meeting at Goalby’s “second home,” St. Clair Country Club, where we spent a very enjoyable afternoon talking with both “Bobs” while my business partner Randy Minchew set up and shot some video of our meeting.

My interest in meeting Bob Goalby was twofold: First, I’d heard he was an engaging fellow still very much involved in golf even though he’d retired from competitive play years ago. After meeting him that afternoon at St. Clair I could certainly check that box. I could have stayed and talked with Bob another four hours. Simply put, a wonderful person and a joy to spend time with.

Second, I wanted to get Bob’s recollection of an “episode” involving the Rules of Golf that involved him. His win at the 1968 Masters caused some controversy and a bit of unfair criticism directed at Bob. Here’s a quick summary of what happened:

Roberto DiVicenzo, a popular, easy-going Argentinian, signed his scorecard for the 4th round at Augusta in 1968 showing one MORE stroke than he had actually taken that day. Somehow Roberto’s playing partner, Tommy Aaron, had written down a four for Roberto on 17 when DiVicenzo had made a three. That higher score resulted in Goalby’s win when all the golfing world at the Masters and watching on TV thought the two had tied and that there would be a playoff. As Shogie confirmed what I thought I knew, what Roberto did was “perfectly legal,” to quote Shogie. One can always sign for a higher score—but that higher score counts! Signing for a lower score results in a DQ, but not a higher one. So, Roberto finished in 2nd as Bob put on the green jacket in ’68 as the Masters champion.

In the ensuing controversy, Bob was held partly to blame because he didn’t offer to settle the tie on the golf course with Roberto. The public thought Bob was somehow being unfair in accepting the win. But what wasn’t brought out at the time was that Bob couldn’t offer anything to Roberto once he had signed his card for a higher score and thus had made his result “official.” No official, nor any player, had any further options under the Rules. The higher score was signed for and recorded as official, despite the obvious error. The lesson here is a simple one: One’s first task in a tournament is to play as well as you can and keep track of your scores on each hole. Your second task is then to get your scorecard from your fellow competitor and carefully check it against the scores you had unofficially recorded for yourself.

Happily, that incident is over 40 years in our rearview mirror and Bob and the golfing public have moved on. Bob still eagerly anticipates his yearly sojourn to the Masters each year—especially to attend the champions dinner and renew acquaintances with friends old and new. The Masters marks for many, including Goalby, the yearly rebirth of our golf season amid the sweet sights and smells of spring in Georgia. Bob will make his 52nd consecutive trip back to Augusta in 2015!

During our lunch, Bob offered an ironic sidebar to that scorecard event those many years ago.

“I was Roberto’s playing partner on Saturday (not on Sunday, as many assumed) and I noticed something that, sure enough, would come into play the next day. We exchanged cards after the round, as you always do, and I was barely through going over my front nine scores when Roberto signed his card, handed it to the official, and wished me luck before heading away from the scoring area. I remember thinking at the time that he sure went over his round quickly and casually. I was still in the middle of recreating my holes and scores because I knew mistakes could be made when one’s playing partner is keeping your card. He’s obviously more concerned with his round and his score than yours. That’s why I’ve always checked my cards very carefully.”

Robert George Goalby was born in 1929 in Belleville, Illinois—and he still lives there some 80 years later. Oh, he goes to the California desert in the winter to escape the Midwest weather, but he remains very much a son of Belleville. Maybe that fact tells you all you need to know about the man: unpretentious, plain-spoken and honest as the day is long, yet possessed of a keen wit and a remarkable memory. He was born at the beginning of the Great Depression, and that fact has shaped his life in many ways. Times were as tough in Belleville as they were in the rest of the country. Much of Bob’s early life was consumed by the need to help out his family in those tough economic times and imprinted with the fact that hard work was a big part of one’s life—everyone’s life.

For me, Bob represents a bridge between golf as a sport for the wealthy and privileged back in the 20s and before and what it’s become today. Bob marvels at the millions his great-nephew Billy Haas, Jay’s son, won at the 2011 Tour Championship and how exponentially higher that winner’s purse was from the purses Bob competed for in the late 50s and 60s on the Tour. “Just amazing,” he says about the money in golf these days, as he recalls his first check, for $20, for a T30 finish in his first Tour event in 1957.

I marvel when I think about all of the changes Bob has seen in life and in golf. He began caddying at St. Clair CC in 1938 at the tender age of 9. The clubs and golf balls were primitive compared to what we have today, and the courses looked and played very differently than those of today because there was a little “good” grass amidst the weeds and dirt that made up the fairways. Lush and manicured courses did not exist, even at the country clubs.

Bob tells the story of their recent renovations at St. Clair with pride because he and his son Kye, a highly regarded golf architect and course shaper, played a major role in them. He defers to Kye, saying he was the “driving force” behind the work. But, as usual, we suspect that’s Bob’s modesty is again coming out, as he has been associated with St. Clair in some form for over 70 years and knows every blade of grass out there. With a glint in his eye Bob says, speaking about the need for the renovation at St. Clair, “most of our top soil had gone to New Orleans over the years.” What he meant, and it took me a minute to get the joke, is that erosion had washed most of their good soil down the Mississippi to New Orleans over the years.

He also gives a good example of the changes that we’ve seen in the country, and in golf, from the Depression until today. “Do you know that a new golf ball in 1929 cost $.75. Doesn’t seem that bad until you realize that a lot of people back then were making $1.00 a day for eight or more hours of work. Now that tells you all you need to know about how out of reach the game of golf was for the ordinary citizen.

Bob was like a lot of our Tour stars back in the 50s and 60s in that he was an athlete, and a good one, who came to golf as a profession later in life. Guys like Snead and Nicklaus (and Goalby) could, and did, play many sports because they were simply good athletes.

Bob was an all-state quarterback at Belleville West High School in 1946 and went to Illinois on a football scholarship. “I learned to play golf by mimicking the swings of those I caddied for. Very few of my buddies played golf because it was so expensive, but we all played football, baseball, and basketball. I was lucky in that I lived a block away from St. Clair and would “sneak” over there in the evenings with a couple of clubs and an old ball and hit it around. I only got serious about golf after I got out of the Army and was sort of at loose ends.”

It’s not surprising that when Bob got onto the Tour, and even when he was a major winner and a “star,” he was known for his dedication to practice. He could often be found on the range after a round, good or bad, “digging it out of the dirt” and practicing his craft.

As we’ve established, it was hard to get this modest man to talk too much about his proudest accomplishments in his life in golf. His charity work, for example. (The Bob Goalby Open is held to benefit Maur Hill-Mount Academy,  a Catholic prep school in Atchison, KS.) Or his many good works on behalf of St. Clair CC… But there are a couple of things that stand out for me:

Bob Goalby is the “trunk” of a large and rich golfing tree. His sons Kye and Kevin are both accomplished amateur players and Kye has stayed in the golf business as an architect and “an artist on a bulldozer,” as Bob says. But Bob has also had a major role in the development and careers of the Haas family. Jay and Jerry Haas are Bob’s nephews. The Haas boys grew up in Belleville, and Bob was an early teacher and mentor for them. And he maintains even today a keen interest in their careers and those of their sons. Jerry is the highly successful golf coach at Wake Forest, one of the premier golf programs in the country.  Jay, the more “famous” of the brothers,  had a great career on the PGA Tour and is having, in relative terms, an even greater career on the Champions Tour having won three senior “majors.” And both of Jay’s sons, Jay, Jr. and Bill have played on the Tour, though only Bill is still out there now.

Bob tells a story about introducing Jay, then a junior in high school, to Jesse Haddock, the legendary golf coach at Wake. “I brought Jay with me when I played the Greater Greensboro Open that year, and then we went to Wake to meet Jesse. Jay could play a little bit, had won some pretty big junior tournaments, and I thought maybe Wake would be a good place for him to continue his golf.”

Wow, was Bob correct in that call! Jay was a member of what was then called “the greatest golf team ever assembled” along with Curtis Strange, Bob Byman, and a strong supporting cast. They won NCAA Championships in ’74 and ’75, and Jay won the individual title in ‘75.

Bob is justifiably proud of what the Haas boys have accomplished in golf, and he should be equally proud of the large role he played in getting them off to a solid start and acting as an unofficial advisor and mentor to them.

There is much less known about the major role Bob played in the formation and growth of what is now known as the Champions Tour—then called the “senior tour.” Bob was highly thought of by his peers on the PGA Tour and served on their advisory board. In the late 70s it became clear that many stars of the 50s and 60s could no longer compete on the Tour, but had nowhere else to play. Bob and a few others undertook a long period of many meetings with potential sponsors in an attempt to form the Senior Tour. The “old’ guys could still play, golf fans wanted to see them play, but they had precious few senior events to play in. After countless meetings and negotiations, the Senior Tour was formed. They had only two events in their first year, 1980, five tournaments in 1981, and then finally broke through with a full 17 week season in 1982—and the rest is history.

You may remember Bob back then on television working some of those events. He was among the first, if not the first “on course” commentator. And he was a natural at it. He was photogenic, had a pleasant voice, and knew golf and could talk about it to the fans and with the players.

Bob Goalby will always be a proud son of Belleville and of St. Clair CC. But he has lived a rich life full of accomplishment in golf and has a legacy as a Tour player, a teacher and mentor, and one of the founding fathers of what now is the very successful Champions Tour.

Bob was inducted into the Belleville Walk of Fame this past fall as part of the first class of inductees. As he points out, with that familiar glint in the eye and a faint smile, “Yes, but I was the only living inductee, so what does that tell you?”

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The Missouri Golf Post is a monthly digital magazine that “celebrates the people who play the game.” Each monthly issue contains several “feature” stories on golfers, golf courses, and/or major tournaments of interest statewide. Each issue contains a number of regular departments on topics such as Tournament Summaries, Fitness, “The Superintendent’s Corner,” Instruction, and Rules.

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