Belleville native, golf legend Bob Goalby dead at 92, according to reports

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Bob Goalby, the 1968 Masters Tournament champion, a pioneer of the PGA Champions Tour and one of the most accomplished athletes to come out of the metro-east, died Thursday at the age of 92, multiple media sources have reported.

The cause of death has not yet known. Attempts to reach members of Goalby’s family have been unsuccessful. Frank Cusumano of KSDK Channel 5, citing a family member as his source, was the first to report the news through Twitter.

The graduate of Belleville Township High School was a three–sport standout, starring on Coach E.G. Gunderson’s state championship baseball team in 1947, then moving on to the University of Illinois on a football scholarship. He wrapped up his collegiate sports career as a pitcher at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale baseball team.

“I got 11 varsity letters (in high school). If it had a ball, I played it,” Goalby told the Belleville News-Democrat in a 2017 interview.

But golf was his first love.

As the son of a west Belleville coal miner, his family did not have the means to support his passion for the sport, so he would sneak over the fence at St. Clair Country Club to practice, he once told the BND.

Goalby became good enough that he was able to join the professional tour in 1952, earning PGA Rookie of the Year honors. His career was interrupted by military service in the Korean War, but he won his first tournament in 1958.

He also supported two nephews, Jay and Jerry Haas, throughout their own pro golf careers.

Bob Goalby, left, gets the traditional green coat as champion of the of the Masters Golf tournament at Augusta, Ga., April 14, 1968, from Gay Brewer.
Bob Goalby, left, gets the traditional green coat as champion of the of the Masters Golf tournament at Augusta, Ga., April 14, 1968, from Gay Brewer.

Masters championship

Goalby retired with 11 tournament wins in all, but he’s best known for a controversial finish at Augusta National Golf Club in 1968 that earned him the Master’s championship.

Roberto De Vicenzo sank a two-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole of his final round that should have sent him to a playoff with Goalby. But Tommy Aaron, who was keeping De Vicenzo’s scorecard, marked his playing partner only with a par and De Vicenzo mistakenly signed off on the uncorrected score, making it final according to United States Golf Association rules.

There would be no playoff and Goalby won the iconic green jacket of a Masters champion.

“I got a lot of really bad mail from people. Some of them thought I was playing with Roberto that day and wrote down the wrong score on purpose. I still have those letters,” Goalby said in an interview with the BND on the 50th anniversary of his title. “It was very, very unfortunate for Roberto and I felt bad for him. But it was equally unfortunate for me because I never got the accolades and credit that the Masters Champion gets.”

The controversy obscured Goalby’s own brilliant play on the second day at Augusta. He birdied holes No. 13 and 14, then made eagle on No. 15. Needing a par on No. 18 to tie, Goalby delivered from a bad up-hill lie at the back of the green.

He collected $20,000 for his Masters triumph, a pittance compared to the $2.07 million won by Hideki Matsuyama in 2021.

“Winning the Masters, it’s helped me live a good life and lifted me into that upper echelon of golf,” he said. “... For a guy who came from a small town with not many golf courses at that time, that was something special they can’t take away.”

He was the oldest living Masters champion.

Barney Elser slides in home as a member of the Belleville Township High School baseball team in 1949. The batter, jumping out of the way, is Bob Goalby, who would go on to 11 Pro Golfers Tour wins including the 1968 Masters championship. The BTHS team won the state championship that season. Elser, a sophomore, set a standing record with three doubles in an Illinois title game.

Champions Tour pioneer

Goalby played in 27 consecutive Masters Tournaments from 1960-87, including a sixth place tie in 1973. Other notable finishes included second place at the U.S. Open in 1961 and second place at the PGA Championship in 1962.

He was instrumental in the formation of the PGA Senior Tour in 1978 — known currently as the PGA Tour Champions — telling the BND in 2016 that the older players needed the tour to extend their careers. He won senior titles in 1981 and 1983.

“We started with 12 tournaments and at one point got up to 48, which is probably too much for the old guys,” Goalby said. “But it was good for the players of our era because we didn’t have a pension like they have now. It was a way for players to continue to earn.”

Goalby maintained long friendships with the likes of golf legends Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer. Their participation on the Senior Tour drew fans and made the circuit a success, he said.

“It took Arnie a little longer to recognize he couldn’t swing it with the young guys any more, but he won 15 tournaments once he joined,” he said. “Without him, I don’t know that there would still be a Champions Tour.”

Loyalty to his hometown

Through all the success, Goalby continued to call Belleville home, even penning a regular how-to column for the BND called “Goalby on Golf.”

“I was born here, I live here and I love it here,” Goalby told the BND. “I’ve traveled all over the world and made a living playing golf, but this has been a great place to travel from. I had a great start here at this school, with great teachers and great coaches that gave me a good competitive spirit.”

Goalby gave his name and celebrity to an effort to raise money to have an artificial surface installed at the football stadiums in Belleville Township High School District 201. He hosted three private fundraisers at St. Clair Country Club, auctioning off some of his personal golf memorabilia. The last of those events netted the “Turf for Teams” effort more than $35,000 and put the district over its $1.4 million goal.

The District 201 Board of Education voted in 2017 to name the field at West as Bob Goalby Field Presented by Commerce Bank. It was officially dedicated in a ceremony held prior to the Maroons’ Southwestern Conference football showdown with the Edwardsville Tigers on Oct. 14 of that year.

Goalby called the dedication ceremony the highlight of his sports career.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been inducted to five halls of fame around the United States, but none of them mean as much as having your hometown rename the football field that you played on,” he said. “Let me just say, unless you can stand in my shoes right now, you can’t know how happy I am.

“...I’m a little humbled because I think there are people that have done more, but I’m certainly going to accept it with great pleasure, smile about it and say thank you.”

Bob Goalby performs the coin toss before the start of the Belleville West versus Edwardsville game in 2017. Belleville West honored Goalby by naming the field after him.
Bob Goalby performs the coin toss before the start of the Belleville West versus Edwardsville game in 2017. Belleville West honored Goalby by naming the field after him.