“You know, you’re the first person who ever asked me what happened.” The question posed to Tommy Aaron was how, in the final round of the 1968 Masters, he came to write a par 4 on the scorecard that he was keeping for Roberto De Vicenzo instead of the birdie 3 De Vicenzo earned at the 17th hole. When De Vicenzo signed the scorecard with the erroneous entry, he ended up as the runner-up to Bob Goalby instead of facing Goalby in an 18-hole playoff.
In fact, after his win at the 1973 Masters, Aaron was queried by the press about the incident but deflected the question. A few years back – perhaps without being asked to explain what happened in 1968 – Aaron penned an article providing details about his role.
Regardless, in a recent telephone interview, the 85-year-old Aaron is happy to discuss 1968 in more detail, his 1973 Masters win, and other chapters of his long career. He is soft-spoken, but not shy, and seems to harbor no resentment that he is known as much for the scoring error as he is for his win five years later. Aaron’s victory at Augusta was the second of two wins on the PGA Tour (it arguably should be three, an interesting story in and of itself). He played in 42 Masters over a span of 46 years and has an indelible place in Masters lore.
In 1968, Aaron arrived at Augusta National to play in his sixth Masters. He drove because Augusta is only about 150 miles from his lifelong home in Gainesville, Georgia. His first two invitations (in 1959 and 1960) were during his stellar amateur career while attending and graduating from the University of Florida. Aaron lost in the final of the 1958 U.S. Amateur to Charles Coe (who factors in the 1968 story) and was a member of the 1959 Walker Cup team, which also earned a Masters invitation in those days. He turned pro in 1960.
By 1968, Aaron long held the label of the greatest golfer not to have won a tournament on the PGA Tour. His status as a perennial bridesmaid started in 1963. During a five-week span, he lost two playoffs, one in sudden death to Tony Lema at the Memphis Open, and an 18-hole playoff at the Cleveland Open, where he and Lema lost to Arnold Palmer. Over the next five years, he was runner-up four more times. Despite never winning, Aaron posted high finishes at the Masters in 1965, 1966 and 1967 to get into the field in the following years. In 1967, he finished tied for eighth, assuring a return to Augusta.
In 1968, as usual, he was in contention. After rounds of 69-72-72, he was three shots back of leader Gary Player. Aaron played well on Sunday but could not keep pace with his playing competitor, De Vicenzo, or the red-hot Bob Goalby. By the time Aaron and De Vicenzo were on the 17th hole, De Vicenzo was one stroke ahead of Goalby. Aaron was out of it, but grinding for a top-10 finish to guarantee a return in 1969.
De Vicenzo hit a superb approach to the 17th green, leaving him a short birdie putt, and Aaron hit his second shot to the back of the green. Aaron putted past De Vicenzo’s marker, not losing his turn. He carefully knocked in his par putt and stepped aside. De Vicenzo sank his birdie putt and quickly strode to the 18th tee, apparently tied with Goalby, who had just sunk a putt for an eagle on 15. “I usually write scores down after the hole was finished, but I didn’t have time,” Aaron recalled.
On 18, De Vicenzo hit his drive to the right, and then hooked his approach to the left. He putted from 30 feet off the green to within 7 feet of the hole and missed the par putt. “My thinking was, it was too bad that he didn’t make 4 here. He may have won the tournament,” Aaron remembered. “So, when we sat down at the scorer’s table, I put a 5 at 18 and just without thinking, I put 4 at 17. Because in my mind, I was thinking, ‘It’s too bad he didn’t make 4.’”
“(De Vicenzo) just jumped up quickly, scribbled his name and left. My first thought was, he didn’t check his scorecard. I hope to hell it was right.” — Tommy Aaron
For the 1969 Masters, a tent was set up to afford players privacy as they went over their scorecards. Today, competitors sign in the clubhouse. But in 1968, players reviewed their cards at a table immediately behind the 18th green. Only a rope separated them from the gallery. It was not a setting conducive to the task at hand. “People are leaning over the rope, trying to see what you were doing, trying to talk to you while you’re trying to check your scorecard,” Aaron said. As De Vicenzo was perusing his card, an Augusta member leaned over the rope. “They want you in the press room,” he told De Vicenzo, according to Aaron.
“It was Charlie Coe,” Aaron recalled. Coe twice won the U.S. Amateur and played in the Masters many times, but not in 1968. “I’ve never told anybody who it was because I thought, ‘Why bring him into it?’ ” Aaron said. “(De Vicenzo) just jumped up quickly, scribbled his name and left. My first thought was, he didn’t check his scorecard. I hope to hell it was right.”
After glancing at the large scoreboard near the 18th green and seeing De Vicenzo’s score and comparing it to the card that he kept, Aaron knew something was not right. “I looked at his card and I went right to the 17th and I thought, ‘Oh, my God; he made 3 there, and I put down 4.’”
Aaron was sitting with a man whose task was to collect the scorecards. The man sensed there was a problem and asked Aaron if something was wrong. “I said, ‘Is Roberto around here somewhere?’ He said, ‘No, he’s been in the press room for five minutes.’ I said, ‘Well, you better bring him back.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘He signed an incorrect scorecard.’”
De Vicenzo was brought back to the scorer’s table. “I said, ‘Roberto, I don’t know what to say, except I’m sorry, but I put down 4 on 17; you made 3.’ Roberto said, ‘Let’s change it.’ I said, ‘We can’t do that, Roberto.’ And you are one of the few people I’ve ever told that. Because it sounds so bad. I said, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ He accepted that. He just sat in a chair with his head in his hands.”
Aaron and De Vicenzo sat together and watched as the final groups came through. When Goalby (who died in January at age 92) made a difficult 5-foot putt for par on 18, CBS and the national television audience thought he and De Vicenzo would have a playoff on Monday. But Aaron and De Vicenzo knew it was over and that Goalby had won.
In the Butler Cabin interview televised on CBS, De Vicenzo conceded that he did not check his card. “I looked at the scorecard and, to tell the truth, I don’t see anything; I don’t see any numbers,” he said.
Aaron is still haunted by his error. “If I’d had a chance, if I just stopped Roberto, but he jumped up so quick,” he said. However, he does not take responsibility for De Vicenzo’s misfortune. “My thought was, how can you not check your scorecard? That’s so irresponsible not to check your scorecard,” Aaron said. “He had a history of doing that, not checking his card.”
Aaron added a long-told story about what happened when De Vicenzo won the Houston Open a few weeks later. “At Houston, he almost did the same thing, but Jack Tuthill stopped him from leaving the scoring area.”
At the 1966 Pensacola Open, Doug Sanders was leading by four shots after 36 holes and forgot to sign his card. Tuthill (a longtime tour official) did not call Sanders back even though he was still at the course and was the one who disqualified Sanders for violating the rule requiring the player to promptly sign and turn in his card. The tour has never acknowledged that an exception was made for De Vicenzo at Houston, but given the outpouring of sympathy for him after the Masters, it makes sense that Tuthill did not have the stomach to disqualify him.
Could De Vicenzo (who died in 2017 at age 94) have had a disability related to executive functioning that made it difficult for him to perform the ministerial act of reviewing, signing, and handing over a scorecard? Could he have been dependent throughout his successful career on his playing partner getting his scores right? All that is known is that when it did not happen at the 1968 Masters, it cost De Vicenzo a chance at winning.
By July 1969, Aaron had been a runner-up in eight tournaments in his career. When he finally broke through, it came with an asterisk of sorts. In July 1969, the Canadian Open was not the official PGA Tour event it would become. It ran opposite the American Golf Classic in Akron, Ohio. As fallout from the battle the touring pros had with the PGA of America in 1968 – that was settled late in the year but not until the 1969 Canadian Open was calendared – the AGC was the official tour event. Both tournaments had strong fields. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino were among those who went to the Firestone Country Club, where Raymond Floyd won, while Billy Casper, Sam Snead, Tony Jacklin, Doug Sanders, De Vicenzo and Aaron led a strong contingent who opted to go to Pinegrove Country Club in Montreal.
Snead shot 67 in the first round to take a one-shot lead. Even though Aaron’s 71 left him back in the pack, Bob Mellor of The Ottawa Citizen wrote that after his round Snead made mention of Aaron. “He’s got to have led more tournaments than Arnold Palmer,” Snead said. “But he still hasn’t won one yet, and I can’t understand it. He swings as well as anyone on the tour.”
Going into the final round in Montreal, Snead had increased his lead to five shots over Takaaki Kono of Japan. Snead shot 70 on Sunday. “I’m sure that before the last round started, if someone had said to Sam, ‘you’ll shoot 70 today’ with a five-stroke lead, he would have bet everything he’d win the tournament,” Aaron said.
Aaron started the final round six behind Snead, and fell further back when he managed only pars for his first four holes and Snead birdied four of his first five. “It was difficult conditions,” Aaron said. “The wind was blowing very hard.” In spite of the wind, Aaron embarked on the greatest streak of his long career, playing the last 14 holes in 8 under par. “Just one of those days where everything goes right for you, with putts going in, and I shot 64,” he said.
Playing behind Aaron, Snead summoned the energy to birdie the 18th hole to tie Aaron. An 18-hole playoff would be required.
“He’s got to have led more tournaments than Arnold Palmer. But he still hasn’t won one yet, and I can’t understand it. He swings as well as anyone on the tour.” –Sam Snead on Tommy Aaron
By then, Snead had won 82 PGA Tour events to Aaron’s 0. Still, probably only Aaron’s immediate family wanted him to beat the 57-year-old Snead on Monday. Colorless, with a quiet manner and everyman appearance (including eyeglasses), Aaron was not going to be the crowd favorite. Snead was a legend, though winless on the tour since the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open. He was vying for his fourth Canadian Open title, the most recent 28 years earlier, in 1941.
The match was close. The key was the par-3 12th hole. Aaron pushed his tee shot into trees on the right and hit his second into a bunker. Snead was just off the green with his tee shot. Aaron blasted out of the trap, 7 feet past the hole. Snead chipped inside of Aaron and walked over to putt out but was stopped by an official. Under the rules of the day, a player could continue his turn and hole out if he was on the green, but not if he was off.
“That was a little gamesmanship on Snead’s part,” said Aaron, knowing that if Snead made his par, Aaron’s longer putt for bogey would become more difficult. “He wasn’t above doing that.”
Aaron rolled in his 7-footer. Snead missed his putt, so both ended up with bogeys. “It looked like there was going to be a two-shot swing, but there wasn’t,” Aaron said. “That was a big hole for me.” He finished his round with an eagle for a 69, two better than Snead.
Tommy Aaron no longer was a non-winner.
Even though the 1969 Canadian Open was an unofficial event, the PGA of America still awarded Ryder Cup points from it. Aaron was selected to his first of two Ryder Cup teams (he also made the team in 1973). At the memorable 1969 competition at Royal Birkdale, he watched from off of the 18th green with his teammates as Nicklaus made a difficult 4-foot putt for par, and in the same motion picked up Jacklin’s coin to concede his shorter putt, resulting in a tie of the match and the competition.
Like his teammates, Aaron wanted to win and was taken aback by Nicklaus’ generous concession. “I had the impression, just probably my impression – I never discussed it with anyone else – that Nicklaus was so happy making his putt he picked up Jacklin’s coin,” Aaron said. “This was like something he hadn’t planned, but it just happened very quickly because he was so happy about making his putt.”
In May 1970, Aaron finally won an official PGA Tour event, the Atlanta Classic in his home state, by one stroke over Dan Sikes. Aaron should have had a more comfortable margin. On the 14th hole in the final round, he drove his ball into an area where the grass was spotty. “It had been a very bad spring, and there was very little Bermudagrass in the fairway,” Aaron said. Tour officials had marked an area where it was permissible to lift, clean and place. He gave himself relief, hit his approach to the green and sank the putt for an apparent birdie.
As with De Vicenzo at the 1968 Masters, the TV broadcasters and viewers were unaware of something that had transpired. Immediately after hitting his approach, Aaron saw that he was not entitled to relief. “It was just short of the line where you could lift, clean and place your ball,” he said. After consulting with an official, he called a two-stroke penalty on himself. “I thought to myself, God, if I don’t win this tournament, the media absolutely will crucify me. They’ll say, ‘How can you be so dumb?’ ”
Fortunately, Aaron held on for the win and was lauded for his honesty, though he was surprised there were no articles that linked his apparent birdie to De Vicenzo’s on the 17th hole at the 1968 Masters. “That goes back to the very heart of the rule. Nobody really knows what the player made.”
Aaron did not win again in 1970 or 1971. In 1972, he won the Trophée Lancôme, an eight-player event in France with a field included Palmer, Player, Sanders and Tom Weiskopf, and a tournament in Japan. Also in 1972, at the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills he finished second, two back of Player, which was his ticket into the 1973 Masters. But when he arrived at Augusta in 1973, he had no reason to be hopeful. He had just turned 36, had missed the cut at the 1972 Masters and his only top-10 in 1973 was a tie for fourth at the Phoenix Open.
On a cool, gusty Thursday, Aaron shot 68 for a one-stroke lead over defending champion Nicklaus and Jumbo Ozaki of Japan. The unforgiving press duly acknowledged Aaron’s gaffe five years earlier as much as reporting on his stellar round, which included five birdies and a single bogey. On Friday, Aaron bogeyed the first two holes, and failed to convert makeable birdies on the last two for a 73, which still left him in a four-way tie for first place with Gay Brewer, J.C. Snead, and Bob Dickson.
Drenching rain on Saturday resulted in the third round being pushed to Sunday. With a 74, Aaron stood four shots behind Peter Oosterhuis of England, with Goalby, J.C. Snead and Jim Jamieson three back. “I hit the ball very poorly in the third round,” Aaron said. “I shot 74 and was fortunate to shoot that.”
Aaron felt good warming up on Monday. “I was encouraged because I was hitting the ball better on the range,” he said. Winning was not in the forefront of his mind. “If I shot a real low score and the other guys backed up some, I could come from four shots behind to win, but that wasn’t my dominant thought,” he said. Birdies on the first three holes put him near the top of the leaderboard. He also birdied the eighth hole to finish the front nine in 4-under 32.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got a great chance to win this tournament if I play a good back nine.’” However, he bogeyed 10 and 11. “I hit two nice shots on 10, but I three-putted, and on 11, I missed the green just to the right and didn’t play a very good pitch and bogeyed.”
Although disappointed by the bogeys, Aaron did not lose hope. “I thought, if I ever had a chance to win, I may have just lost it on those two holes. But all I can do is play the last seven holes as well as I can. I can’t change 10 and 11. So I didn’t dwell on that too much.”
Aaron steadied himself with a par 3 at the difficult 12th hole, a birdie at the short par-5 13th, and a par at 14. When he arrived at the par-5 15th, he learned he was tied with J.C. Snead, the result of Snead’s double bogey at 12.
Aaron was in the fourth-to-last group, which “probably was a help” as it took some of the pressure off. “I didn’t look at every leaderboard, but you can’t avoid them. There’s so many of them.”
Aaron assumed that Snead would birdie 13 and 15, so he knew he needed a birdie on 15. He said he hit a poor drive, short and behind some mounds that formerly were on the right side of the fairway amidst pine trees.
Faced with the decision of whether to lay up or go for the green, Aaron decided to go for it. “As I stood there and pulled out this 3-wood – and it was a wood back then – there were a lot of people from Gainesville up on those mounds. I heard this collective groan, ‘Oh, no; I can’t believe he’s going for the green.’ And I couldn’t have hit a better shot under the circumstances.”
It cleared the pond and went just over the green. Aaron pitched to within 5 feet and sank the putt for a birdie. He parred 16 and 17.
On 18, he had a 163-yard uphill approach. His caddie urged him to hit a 5-iron to take the right bunker in front of the green out of play. Aaron decided to go with a 6-iron. He hit it over the bunker onto the apron, lagged to within 18 inches and tapped it in for a 68 and a 283 total. He retired to the clubhouse to see whether Snead would catch him.
Snead birdied 13 but could do no better than par on 15. After pars on 16 and 17, Snead needed a birdie on 18 to force a playoff, a prospect Aaron did not relish. “I was exhausted,” he said. Snead hit a decent shot to the green, but when he missed a difficult 25-foot putt, Aaron was the Masters champion.
As in 1968, there was a scorecard issue. His playing competitor, Johnny Miller, marked Aaron for a 5 on the 13th hole instead of 4. In carefully reviewing the card, Aaron caught the error and made casual mention of it in the press room, which displeased Miller. “He thought I was trying to throw him under the bus,” Aaron said. “I wasn’t trying to do that. I didn’t blame him for anything. We just changed it. That’s the way it works.”
The Masters win was the apex of Aaron’s career. He never won again on the PGA Tour, nor would he even finish as high as second. His only subsequent victories were in 1975 at the Georgia Open, which he had won as an amateur in 1957 and as a pro in 1960, and a 1992 Senior Tour win at Kaanapali. But after 1973, Aaron would play in 31 more Masters. In 2000, at age 63, he became the oldest player to make the cut, a record he held until broken by Bernhard Langer in 2020.
Aaron is asked if, at the start of his career, he could have chosen one of the majors to win, which one would it be. “I would’ve said the Masters,” he said. “That would’ve been a quick reply by me.” He said growing up in Georgia, before there was televised golf, the Masters was one of the few tournaments covered by the local press.
After some recent health issues, Aaron is feeling better and is planning to attend the Masters Champions Dinner on Tuesday. “It’s a very special night and means a lot to me to get to go back every year,” he said. He may even enter the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday.
“It was really a dream come true for me to win and know that you always will be a Masters champion on that trophy. So, it means the world for me.”
Top: Tommy Aaron at the 2013 Masters Par 3 Contest (Photo: Augusta National, Getty Images)
© 2022 Global Golf Post LLC
If you love great journalism like this, you will love GGP+. Click here and subscribe for just $48 (20% off).
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?