The sandbagging scandal that shook golf
In celebration of Golf Digest's 70th anniversary, we’re revisiting the best literature we’ve ever published. Each entry includes an introduction that celebrates the author or puts in context the story. Catch up on earlier installments.
They used to say, one of the dirty little secrets of sports is that more money was wagered at a golf course than on all the racetracks and betting parlors combined. The Internet might have disrupted that equation, but in the 1950s, the big bucks changed hands in calcutta tournaments among so-called amateurs at many clubs around the country. The most infamous in golf history was a game played in 1955 that conjures up images of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “The Sting.” It’s known even today by three words—the Deepdale Scandal.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dave Anderson came to us with a story idea. He found a lead on one of the principals who had remained silent for almost 50 years. Dave was the perfect choice to pursue the investigation. He was the most likable of sports writers. Disarmingly, the renowned columnist called himself a lowly scribe “for the New York City Daily Times.” Every sports specialist thought Dave was one their own—boxing writers thought he was a boxing expert, baseball writers thought his favorite sport was baseball, and golf writers thought he was a golf guy, etc. Dave could always get people to talk, which he combined with preparation and hard work—what’s known in the trade as “shoe leather.” He simply outworked the competition, but luckily for Golf Digest, golf really was his No. 1 sport. He was a contributor to the magazine for more than 30 years, a close friend of our editors, and one of the game’s best reporters until his passing at 89 in 2018. This story, which appeared in March 2001, started with a phone call that wasn’t returned. —Jerry Tarde
He is golf’s lost soul. When you ask people around Springfield, Mass., the whereabouts of Bill Roberts, the answer invariably is, “Ever since that scandal, he just sort of disappeared.”
Only the old-timers remember that scandal, the handicap hoax at the 1955 Deepdale calcutta in a leafy Long Island suburb of New York City, but for Bill Roberts, golf has never been the same. Neither has he. If Philip Nolan is the fictional “Man Without a Country,” for nearly half a century Bill Roberts has disappeared as the Man Without Golf.
In my search, none of the listings for William Roberts in the Springfield-area telephone directories matched. His father, Raymond, before he died at 95, professed not to know his son’s address, but he rattled off his son’s unlisted phone number.
When the phone rings, only the answering machine responds. A message mentioning the Deepdale Scandal goes unanswered, but the address is unearthed—a yellow condo in Chicopee, Mass., near the Westover Air Force Base. On a quiet afternoon, I knock on the front door. Bill Roberts opens it. “I thought it might be you,” he says. “I was away over the weekend. I was going to call you.”
I believe him; he has written my phone number on a slip of paper that is on the table in the kitchen where we sit and talk for two hours. Tall and slim, he has on a tan windbreaker over a plaid shirt with brown slacks, brown moccasins. He speaks quickly and nervously but willingly, as if relieved to be finally discussing the hoax.
“I don’t absolve myself of guilt, but I was 26,” he says. “I did wrong, morally and golf-wise, but I knew that around here, everybody cheats. It was a private club, and I needed a few dollars.”
Roberts, who turned 71 in May 2000, once was among New England’s better amateurs. But that was before his 1955 involvement in a $16,016.90 jackpot from a $45,000 auction at the elegant Deepdale Golf Club, then in Great Neck, N.Y. (When construction of the Long Island Expressway cut through the course the next year, the club moved to a site in nearby Manhasset.)
Then a 3-handicapper and a three-time club champion at The Orchards in South Hadley, Mass., Roberts was listed as a 17 on the Deepdale pairing sheet. His partner, Charles (Bud) Helmar, a 3 at the Franconia municipal course and the Springfield public-links champion, was listed as an 18 and played under the name of Richard Vitali, another member of The Orchards.
Roberts and Helmar, alias “Vitali,” shot a net 58-57 for 115, winning by five strokes. Richard L. Armstrong, a New York bank executive, headed the syndicate that held the $16,016.90 ticket.
THE SCAM IS EXPOSED
Six weeks later, the scam was exposed by Lawrence Robinson, the golf writer for the now-defunct New York World Telegram & Sun, after Helmar, a carpet-factory worker in West Springfield, had confessed in a “conscience-stricken” letter to the Deepdale president, the late L. Dorland Doyle.
“During and after the tournament,” Helmar wrote, “I have received no money.”
Roberts deposited three checks totaling $3,713.99 (his share of the winning ticket minus expenses) in the Park National Bank of Holyoke, Mass. But when his name and photo started appearing in the New York and Springfield newspapers, he was no longer to be found at his home in Amherst, Mass., or at the laundromat where he worked.
“I don’t know where he is,” his mailman said at the time. “I haven’t seen his new green Volkswagen convertible for a few days.”
Roberts’ disappearance had begun. So had golf’s public embarrassment. In that era, long before handicaps could be checked by a computer, the higher the bet, the higher some amateurs’ traveling handicaps were. But the handicaps for Roberts and Helmar had been grossly inflated, by 14 and 15 strokes.
To add to the embarrassment, all this had occurred at elite Deepdale, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a member. And the $45,000 pot was important money then, even at Deepdale; 50 years later it was the equivalent of more than $225,000.
Then as now, a golf calcutta involves an auction of players or better-ball teams, often escalating into high-stakes bidding and paydays for the participants. In the Masters’ early years, a calcutta was held on the tournament field, involving players and officials alike, at a nearby Augusta hotel. The fashionable Seminole Golf Club in North Palm Beach, Fla., reportedly once had a pot of $193,000 in its calcutta—a name that evolved from England’s Calcutta Turf Club, which sponsored horseracing sweepstakes.
SIREN FOR SANDBAGGERS
But 46 years ago, Roberts and Hemar, of all people, blew the cover of sandbaggers everywhere, large and small.
“It remained for two Mortimer Snerds from the New England hills,” wrote Joe Williams, the Scripps-Howard sports columnist, “to focus public attention on racketeering in the noble game of golf.”
At the U.S. Golf Association offices, President Isaac (Ike) Grainger issued a stern warning on high-stakes club gambling. Some PGA Tour events, notably the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, stopped holding calcuttas. Some clubs banished calcuttas; all took a closer look at strangers’ handicaps.
But with or without calcuttas, sandbaggers still exist, and always will. At the 1995 AT&T National Pro-am, amateur Masashi Yamada teamed with pro Bruce Vaughan to win by four strokes. Yamada had entered with a 15-handicap. When tournament officials learned that Yamada actually was an 8 in Japan, his team was disqualified.
In the USGA crackdown in 1955, Roberts and Helmar lost their amateur standing for conduct “detrimental” to golf. Four years later, Helmar was reinstated; he helped his Franconia club win the 1960 New England public-links team title. Roberts never applied for reinstatement.
“I didn’t think I should,” Roberts says the day of our talk in his kitchen.
When the now-80-year-old Helmar is contacted by telephone at his home in West Springfield for his memories of the scandal, he blurts, “No way. I ended up in a hospital and everything. No way am I going to talk about that.”
You wound up in a hospital?
“I’m not saying any more.”
Helmar hangs up, still embarrassed, even though he had been an unsuspecting accomplice. He wasn’t even a close friend of Bill Roberts, who as a youngster lived across from the first fairway at The Orchards, where his father is a charter member of its Hall of Fame.
“I taught Billy how to play,” his father said.
Ray Roberts could play. In the late ’40s, he was Bob Toski’s partner in winning the New England pro-am. Ray Roberts qualified for the 1955 U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Virginia, losing in the first round a few days before the Deepdale scam.
“I wrote out a check to pay ’em back what Billy won,” his father said. “I sent it to Joe Dey at the USGA, and he sent it to the club. My wife, Alice, was so upset, she almost died. Billy was young. He’s sorry he ever went down there.”
A LINGERING QUESTION
All these years later, one question remains unanswered: How did Bill Roberts get a printed invitation to this high-society golf event?
“It arrived in the mail about three weeks earlier; it said I could bring somebody,” he says. “I don’t know who sent it; I really don’t. I was married then, to a woman I met at the University of California at Berkeley. Maybe some of her high-society friends sent it. That’s the only possible explanation I’ve come up with. I didn’t know any Deepdale members.”
Roberts remembers driving alone to Deepdale early that week for a practice round and the calcutta auction dinner that night at a midtown Manhattan hotel.
“We didn’t have all the Interstates then,” he says. “It took me longer to get there than I figured, so I played only nine holes, but I remember my caddie saying, ‘You’re mighty good, Mr. Roberts.’ In the locker room afterward, I was getting dressed with four or five other guys. One of them smiled at me. Armie Armstrong.”
Armstrong was a member at the nearby Sands Point Country Club.
“I asked Armie if he was going to the banquet,” Roberts says. “He said he was, and I said, ‘I don’t know the way—I’ll follow you.’ He took off in a four-door Lincoln convertible wearing a yacht captain’s hat. He drove so fast, I had to weave through traffic to stay with him. I had brought a suit to wear, but at the hotel most of the guys were in tuxedos.”
Armstrong invited Roberts to sit at his table with several others during dinner and the auction.
“After the first three or four teams were auctioned off, I realized that these people were high-stakes players,” Roberts says. “I had about $300 in my pocket, but the teams were going for a lot more. Armie asked me about my handicap, which he thought was 18. I said, ‘I’m no 18.’ He said, ‘You aren’t?’ I said, ‘We’re not too bad, but I’m not an 18.’
“He went out and made a phone call,” Roberts adds. “When he came back, he told me he had called Joe Mitchell, a good Connecticut amateur, and Joe told him, ‘Roberts can hold his own.’ Next thing I know, Armie is saying, ‘We’re going to buy you.’ ”
Armstrong put up $1,900 for Field R,” the team with Roberts and his presumed partner, Richard Vitali.
“Armie told me, ‘When you and your pal come down for the weekend, stay at my house,’ ” Roberts says.
Vitali’s name was still on the auction sheet, but he had declined Roberts’ request to play in the Deepdale event.
“I didn’t have any money to go to Long Island,” says Vitali, now retired in Marco Island, Fla. “I was just getting started in the insurance business. My wife and I had a young son, and we had just bought our first house. I also knew Bill, and I knew that I would probably end up paying for the whole thing. He was capable of doing that. He would come up and say he didn’t have it when you got there.”
Roberts remembers contacting two or three other golfers before Helmar, whom he knew only casually, agreed to be his Deepdale partner.
After the hoax was discovered, Helmar told The Springfield Union that Roberts had phoned him at 10 o’clock that night before he drove to Deepdale and promised him that all expenses would be taken care of and that Helmar would receive $100 for appearing.
“I should have known better right away,” Helmar said at the time. “Why should someone call me up to give me $100 to play in a tournament?”
‘I DIDN’T LIKE IT, BUT … ’
Roberts also mentioned that Helmar would be playing under Vitali’s name because it was now too late to change the names on the entry sheet.
“I didn’t like it, but I agreed to do it,” Helmar told The Union. “On the way to Long Island, I asked Billy Roberts 20 times where the invitation came from. He said he didn’t know, that it was just sent to him.”
In his condo now, Roberts remembers teeing off in the last group each day with Helmar, Armstrong and another Sands Point member, Sumner Waters.
“I was surprised that Armstrong was playing with us, but he told me, ‘I’m in your group now,’ ” Roberts says. “As we walked off the first tee, my caddie said, ‘I bet $100 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 7 and an 8, as I remember. Somebody had put a ‘1’ before the numbers.”
As he talks, Roberts sits for a few minutes in his spartan condominium, then stands, then sits again, often taking a deep breath and wringing his thin hands, occasionally holding his hands to his head.
“The second day, we were trying to miss shots,” he recalls. “On one hole, I had a 6- or 7-iron to the green, and I told my caddie, ‘Give me my 2.’ I wanted to hit it into the trees behind the green. I did, but it bounced off the trees back on the green. It wouldn’t have mattered what we shot. When we finished, the first thing Armie did was look at the other scores before he turned our card in.”
Armstrong, along with Sands Point members Waters, Bud Sedlmayr and Mrs. Dan Drayton, had bought Field R for $1,900. Armstrong, who reputedly often invested in calcuttas, held 60 percent. The other three and sportscaster Harry Wismer (who along with WOR Radio president Tom O’Neil had a Field R ticket) each had 10 percent. The Roberts-“Vitali” team, if it won, stood to collect 25 percent of the purse.
It won easily, but not without stirring suspicion. After the Springfield strangers opened with their net 58, the Deepdale pro, the late Fred Dugan, watched them tee off and finish on Sunday.
“I said to myself, They play better golf than I do,” Dugan told The Union. “I’m a short knocker, but that Roberts hit the ball a mile. They knew they had the tournament in the bag, so they played like a couple of hackers on the 18th.”
‘SCHEMER’ DENIES WRONGDOING
Armstrong, now deceased but remembered by at least two Sands Point members as a “schemer,” denied being part of any conspiracy.
“I bought another team, for $1,200 on my own, and I bought half of myself, paired with Sumner Waters,” he told The World-Telegram & Sun at the time. “If I had known anything, I certainly wouldn’t have spent that money.”
Armstrong acknowledged sitting with Roberts at the calcutta auction.
“The tournament just seemed to be loaded with coincidences for me,” Armstrong said. “Roberts sat at our table, though I didn’t talk to him, then Sumner and I were paired with him and his partner. Later, Roberts and Helmar told me about blowing a tire and being unable to have it fixed at busy Saturday night gas stations, so I invited them to stay at my house; even loaned them my souped-up pet convertible.”
The winning ticket was worth $16,016.90, or 44 percent of the net pool of about $36,000 after the charity donations and dinner expenses were deducted. Roberts and Helmar were due $4,026.73, minus expenses.
The next Friday, Helmar wrote his “conscience-stricken” confession to Doyle, the Deepdale president. Vitali also wrote Doyle, explaining how Roberts had entered him without his knowledge.
“The day after the tournament, Bill called me, laughing,” Vitali recalls. “He said, ‘Hey, you won a golf tournament.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, it was too late to change names.’ I said, ‘Bill, who went?’ The fellow who went, Helmar, I didn’t even know, but I knew he was a helluva player.”
Helmar’s letter described how Roberts had told him “it would be all right” to play under Vitali’s name, that it was with Vitali’s approval and using his 18-handicap.
“From the time I teed off,” Helmar wrote, “I realized I was doing something wrong, and much to my regret, I continued playing under false pretenses. Upon arriving home being conscience stricken, I contacted Dick Vitali and learned all this was done without his knowledge or consent and that his handicap was only 8.
“Upon learning this, I told Dick Vitali the whole story and told him I was informing you [Doyle] 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 tournament was played over the Sept. 18-19 weekend; the story didn’t break in the World-Telegram & Sun until Nov. 1.
“After the thing hit the newspapers,” Vitali says, “Helmar and his wife came to my house. He was hysterically crying, and he said he was so sorry for what he did.”
By then, Roberts had used most of his Deepdale dollars to buy that green Volkswagen convertible. “It was the first one in New England; it had a radio and a heater, cost me $2,250,” he says now in his condo. “When the story broke, Armie came up to see me, but I told him, ‘I don’t want to meet with you.’ I got phone calls from Deepdale members yelling at me. One even said, ‘I’m going to destroy you.’
“Several days later, a man who identified himself as Frank Hogan, the New York District Attorney, called. He must have heard about the calls I was getting, because he apologized for the people who had been calling me. He knew I hadn’t broken any laws. Golf laws, moral laws, yes. Not criminal laws.”
STUCK ON THE FRIDGE
Banned by The Orchards, Bill Roberts was a golf outcast. Twice divorced with no children, he vaguely describes his life since then as “a mixed bag”—a sixth-grade school teacher, a construction clerk, an investor in real estate (he owns the four-story brick apartment house where his father lived) and the stock market. “Evidently, not too successfully,” he says. And he estimates that since the scandal, he has played about 90 rounds of golf, an average of only two or three times a year.
“Not long after the scandal, a friend of mine invited me to play at the Springfield Country Club,” he says, looking away now, his eyes misty. “I had just put my tee in the ground when the pro comes running out, yelling, ‘He’s barred. 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.”
Has he seen Helmar since the scandal?
“If he walked in this house right now,” Roberts says, “I wouldn’t know who he was.”
Has Roberts ever returned to The Orchards?
“My father wanted me to go there with him in 1972 for a club tournament. I didn’t want to go, but I did. We came in third, but some SOB protested. If I’m playing, somebody is going to object. I also wanted to get a PGA card as a club pro. I needed to get three local pros to sign my application. I’d known these pros all my life, but I could get only one to sign.”
In 1958, Roberts drove to Toronto for the Canadian Amateur, outside USGA jurisdiction.
“I got sick to my stomach the whole night before the qualifying,” he says. “I think I shot 84. I remember somebody telling me, ‘See that kid from Ohio over there? He’s going to be the greatest golfer who ever lived.’ I’d heard that before—we all have—but that kid was Jack Nicklaus. I was on the practice green there when Martin Stanovich, the Fat Man, told me, ‘You’re Roberts, aren’t you? You ruined it for all of us. Get away from me. Go putt at the other end of the green.’ ”
Bill Roberts is on his feet again, wringing his hands.
“I’ll take 50 percent of the blame for what happened at Deepdale,” he says, “but there’s 50 percent I can’t account for. I feel badly because I never game myself a chance to be a top player. I’d have liked to have had a couple mulligans for myself. To have the opportunities I had and not do more in life, there must have been something wrong with me. But even with all this, I have no complaints.”
Maybe not, but still he’s the Man Without Golf.