Roberto Di Vicenzo and the 1968 Masters Golf Championship: Enhancing Ethics In Sports

Photograph Source: pocketwiley – CC BY 2.0

With the 2021 Masters Golf Championship coming up and in the context of the admirable movements for racial, economic, social, and political justice that have expanded and accelerated in the past year, it would be worthwhile to think of the 1968 Masters tournament, an event that carried a consequential injustice to one of the competitors. However, the injustice could easily have been rectified and, thereby, another competitor could have earned a lasting renown and set a marvelous precedent not only in terms of golf but in relation to other sports as well.

On the final day of the 1968 Masters the Argentine golfer, Roberto Di Vicenzo, ended up in a tie with the American Bob Goalby. An 18-hole playoff would be take place the next day to determine the champion. Di Vicenzo had won the British Open championship in 1967 at the age of 44 and was one of the best players of his generation, a player who had he competed regularly on the American tour could easily have been included with Palmer, Player, Nicklaus, and Casper among a quite proper Big Five of the 1960s. But it should be added that had Charlie Sifford, the African American golfer who in 1969 at the age of 46 won the prestigious Los Angeles Open, been allowed to compete regularly on the American tour during his prime, he could very likely have achieved the kind of greatness of the aforementioned. As it was, Di Vicenzo, in limited playing on the American and European tours won 8 and 9 times respectively and won 131 times on the Argentine tour.

But Di Vicenzo did not get to compete in the playoff with Goalby to determine the championship. He was disqualified for having signed an incorrect scorecard, a scorecard that gave him what would have been a more disadvantageous total of 71 rather than the 70 he actually scored that day. A player’s official scorecard is not kept by the player him or herself but rather by the player’s opponent and vice-versa. Each player also keeps his own score on an unofficial card and at the conclusion of the round each player checks the official against the unofficial card and then signs the official card.

Perhaps once upon a time there would have been reason to have this rule, but like a lot of golf rules nowadays this rule is antiquated and certainly when it comes to professional tournaments and, all the more, events that are televised. Di Vicenzo should not have been disqualified. The rule should have been set aside and certainly in this instance where a championship of paramount importance was being decided. And there was precedent for the Masters and PGA officials to set the rule aside!

In the 1957 British Open, the champion that year, the South African Bobby Locke (who in this instance won the championship for the fourth time) was lying two, only four feet from the cup, on the 72nd hole. However, Locke necessarily moved his ball marker one putter-head length to avoid the line of the Australian Bruce Crampton’s putt. After Crampton holed out, Locke holed out his putt, but he forgot to place his ball back in its original position prior to putting. This is a rules infraction. Officials were informed of Locke’s mistake, but with admirable wisdom the Championship Committee determined that no advantage had been gained and that Locke’s three-stroke victory should stand. This was the only just course to follow.

And with this quite recent historical example available, the PGA and the Masters Committees should have made the same determination and allowed Di Vicenzo and Goalby to compete in a playoff. By not allowing this they effectively vacated the championship’s first place finish. Goalby may have accepted the championship but he did not win the championship. Of course, this is not at all a reproach aimed at Goalby. And by way of a side-light, it should be added that had Di Vicenzo won the playoff he would at the age of 45 have become at that point the oldest player to ever win the Masters.

But there was another course of action that could have been followed. It might not have changed the minds of the Masters and PGA officials but it would I am certain have secured for Goalby an even greater esteem than being a Masters champion.

In 1912 Jim Thorpe won two gold medals in the Olympic Games in Stockholm. He not only won the decathlon but the heptathlon as well, an unprecedented and extraordinary feat. However, six months after the Olympics the International Olympic Committee declared that his victories and medals would be rescinded because he had played semi-professional baseball for a short time during a summer some years prior to the Olympics. Up till the 1970s professional athletes were not allowed to compete in the Olympics. But even in 1912 the official Olympic rules stated that if awards were to be nullified, the nullification had to take place in a time period much shorter than six months. The Olympic Committee, therefore, did not have any legal or statutory ability to rescind Thorpe’s victories. Hence, they willfully did so, doubtless, motivated by ill-will and racism in relation to someone who was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation.

However, the man who finished second in these events, Hugo Friedlander from Sweden, refused to accept the medals. This was an admirable refusal on the part of Friedlander, yet, it is not something that is well-known at all. Friedlander should be remembered as a sports hero not only because of his sports abilities and accomplishments, but also and precisely because of his refusal.

With this kind of precedent, but even without it, Bob Goalby could well have refused to accept the Masters Championship and could have insisted that there be a playoff between himself and Di Vicenzo Would the PGA and the Masters’ officials have accepted Goalby’s request? I’m doubtful they would have, but Goalby could have then refused to accept victory. And would that this could happen in all such instances and not just in golf but in other sports as well. Imagine that an absolutely egregious referee’s call is going to determine or does determine the outcome of an event. What if an athlete or a team which would thereby benefit refuses to take the benefit? There are all sorts of scenarios in relation to past or future events which can be imagined in this context where athletes themselves would determine the justness of an outcome. During the 2007 NBA Western Conference Finals, for example, between the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs the NBA commissioner David Stern, following the narrowest letter but not what would have been the spirit of a regulation, suspended two Suns players, Amare Stoudamire and Boris Diaw, for the crucial fifth game of the series (the series was tied 2-2 at that point). The Spurs won that fifth game by 3 points and went on to win the series and defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers for the NBA championship With a league championship on the line Stern acted all the more unjustly. What if the Spurs collectively refused to play the fifth game unless the Suns’ players were reinstated. The Spurs could have set a beautiful precedent. In 2016 a very similar circumstance—the suspension of a key player for the pivotal 5th game–gave an undue advantage to the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers, indeed, it changed the entire nature of the situation up to that point.

In this spirit let us remember Roberto Di Vicenzo and while lamenting what he suffered that day, what was so unjustly and egregiously stolen from him–and from Goalby too–let us hope that a time will come when in similar situations in the world of golf and in other sports competitors can follow the admirable example of Hugo Friedlander nor only post hoc but ante hoc as well.