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The Deepdale Scandal: The sandbag that changed golf

June 26, 2023
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It's almost hard to imagine now, but decades ago, private clubs all over the U.S. would hold high-stakes calcutta auctions for handicapped golf tournaments, in which members would purchase stakes in teams in the hopes of cashing out when they won. At the famed Seminole Golf Club, one calcutta in the 1950s brought in $193,000, a number that would be in the millions today with inflation. It's not hard to believe that wealthy club members and guests would gamble to this extent; what's hard to believe is that they'd do so in a format that was ripe for sandbagging.

Perhaps it was inevitable that something would give, and that a crisis moment was coming. It happened in 1955, at the Deepdale Golf Club on Long Island. There, a club tournament title went to a pair of strangers from Massachusetts named Bill Roberts and Charles Helmar, one of them a part-time employee at a laundromat and the other a factory worker. They were playing under handicaps of 17 and 18, respectively; in reality, their real handicaps were three. The total pot that year in the calcutta was $45,000, which would be around $750,000 today, and Roberts and Helmar came away with $4,000 each for their work.

Even then, the sandbag they pulled off was shrouded in mystery. Nobody knew how they got invited, or how they slipped through the cracks, and even now it's disputed to what degree a Manhattan bank executive helped initiate the situation. What we do know is that Helmar had a crisis of conscience not long after, and confessed everything to the Deepdale club president. The fallout was sudden and swift, and pretty soon the New York and Springfield papers had picked up the story. In the golf world, at least, this became national news.

On this week's Local Knowledge podcast, we go deep on Deepdale—how the con was perpetrated, how it was uncovered, and the reaction from the USGA and private clubs. The strange incident shows amateur golf at a transition point in America. It's a display of how easily golf's honor code could be broken, but also a cautionary tale about what happens when that honor code bites back. The impact had broad implications for club golf in general, but for Roberts and Helmar, the casualties of Deepdale were intensely personal; their lives were forever altered by the choices they made that weekend.