'Crime' cost golfing cheat his career

Golf has always had its cheats

Golf has always had its cheats. Indeed many would argue that the business of massaging a score by deft use of the leather mashie in the rough or by various other forms of foul play is probably the great unwritten story of the game.

Hardly a year goes by without some case reaching the media about a tournament professional who has been caught bending the rules. Very often, such infringements are accepted as no more than forgivable aberrations, done more through ignorance than intent.

But there have also been situations when the guilty one has been made pay a huge price for an indiscretion. As in the qualifying tournament for the 1985 British Open at Prince's GC in Kent, where the Scottish professional David Robertson was found guilty of moving his ball on the green closer to the hole. His punishment was a life ban.

There is also the belief that many rank-and-file club members cheat on a regular basis, through the manipulation of their handicaps.


This was at the heart of arguably the most celebrated story of cheating in the history of the game in the US. And though it happened almost 46 years ago, the full facts of the Deepdale Scandal came to light only a few months ago.

They were unearthed by Dave Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist with the New York Times. As a central figure, it concerned Bill Roberts, a former member of The Orchards club in Massachusetts who, because of the scandal, became what Anderson described as "The Man Without Golf".

Deepdale, we are told, was an elegant golf club so prestigious that it had President Dwight D Eisenhower as a member.

The scandal involved two three-handicappers masquerading as 17 and 18 handicappers. And not surprisingly, it had to do with money. For their annual, high-society competition, Deepdale held an auction of players or better-ball teams, known as a Calcutta, a name borrowed from England's Calcutta Turf Club, which sponsored horse-racing sweepstakes.

For the year in question, the auction generated $45,000 ($225,000 at today's values) of which the winning ticket was worth $16,016.90. In the event, the winning pair crushed the opposition with net rounds of 58 and 57 to coast home by a five-stroke margin, and Roberts deposited three cheques totalling $3,713.99 in a Massachusetts bank as his share of the pool.

Six weeks later, one of the perpetrators had confessed, "conscience stricken", in a letter to the president of the golf club.

Roberts and fellow Orchards member Richard Vitali were entered, but Vitali withdrew and Roberts teamed up with Charles (Bud) Helmar, a three-handicap golfer at a municipal course, who played under Vitali's name.

Said Roberts: "As we walked off the first tee, my caddie said: 'I bet $100 (dollars) on you.' I said: 'Why did you do that? The fellow with me is a chopper.' But my caddie said: 'I noticed your handicaps, 17 and 18.' I'd put us in for a high handicap, a seven or an eight as I remember. Somebody had put a '1' before the numbers."

However, Vitali recalls: "The day after the tournament, Bill (Roberts) called me, laughing. 'Hey,' he said, 'you won a golf tournament.' I said: 'What do you mean?', to which he replied 'Well, it was too late to change names.' I said: 'Bill, who went?' And he said that he didn't even know Helmar, the fellow who went, but that he was a helluva player."

In his letter to the Deepdale club, Helmar claimed that Roberts had assured him it would be all right to play under Vitali's name and that Vitali had approved of using his 18 handicap. The letter went on: "From the time I teed off, I realised I was doing something wrong and, much to my regret, I continued playing under false pretences.

"Upon arriving home, conscience stricken, I contacted Dick Vitali and learned all this was done without his knowledge and consent and that his handicap was only eight (not 18). Upon learning this, I told Dick Vitali the whole story and told him I was informing you (the club president) immediately.

"During and after the tournament, I have received no money; and shall return to you immediately, any money or prizes sent to me. This is my story and all I can say is that I'm truthfully sorry I had any part in this."

The fall-out was profound. Sandbaggers immediately ran for cover and the USGA issued a stern warning on high-stakes club gambling. USPGA Tour events such as the Bing Crosby Pro-Am stopped holding Calcutta auctions.

Both Roberts and Helmar forfeited their amateus status, leading to an automatic ban on Roberts by his club. Helmar, who pleaded to the USGA: "I didn't like it but I agreed to do it," was reinstated after four years and helped his Franconia club to victory in the 1960 New England public-links team title.

Bill Roberts, who is now 71, never applied for reinstatement. He settled for the life of a golfing outcast and estimates that he has played only about 90 games of golf since then - two per year.

Talking to Anderson earlier this year, he recalled: "Not long after the scandal, a friend of mine invited me to play at the Springfield Country Club. I had just put my tee in the ground when the pro comes running out yelling: 'He's bar red. He's not supposed to play in clubs that belong to the USGA.' "My friend grabbed the pro by the shirt and said: 'If he doesn't play, you're out of a job.' It was the nicest thing that ever happened to me. Somebody stood up for me. I played that day, but I never went back."

He tried to get a card as a PGA professional. "I needed to get three local pros to sign my application," he said. "I'd known these pros all my life but I could get only one to sign."

In 1958, Roberts tried to qualify for the Canadian Amateur, which was outside the USGA's jurisdiction, but through over-anxiety, he played poorly. Looking back on the ill-fated scam, he says: " I feel badly, because I never gave myself a chance to be a top player."

When contacted by phone and asked about his memories of the scandal, Helmar, now 80, blurted: "No way. I ended up in a hospital and everything. No way am I going to talk about that." In more senses than one, it was a crime that didn't pay.