Tommy Aaron: I Was There—The Collapse at The 1968 Masters

The true story—and an incredible, never-before-told admission—of golf’s most famous mistake

It’s been half a century since the strangest day of my playing career—the final round of the 1968 Masters—but even in my 80s I can remember every detail as if it were yesterday.

What a battle. Sixteen players were within four strokes of Gary Player’s lead of six under par, including me and my pairing partner, reigning Open champion Roberto De Vicenzo, who celebrated his 45th birthday by holing out from the fairway at the 1st for eagle. Over the next 16 holes he added five birdies and was in the lead at 11 under, one ahead of Bob Goalby, playing two holes behind us.

1968 Masters
Aaron and De Vicenzo (Bettman/Getty Images)

At 17, Roberto hit it stiff and holed for a sixth birdie to the roar of the crowd. But almost immediately, an even bigger roar rose from the 15th green where Goalby had made eagle to pull even at 12 under. It was a pretty wild moment—so wild that I neglected to pencil in Roberto’s score before leaving the green.

At the 18th tee all I could think was, “Gee, if Roberto can par this he’ll have a great chance of winning.” But he pushed his drive, leaving no shot to the green, and made a bogey five. Understandably, he was distraught.

We exited the green and sat down at the scorer’s table. Back then, that’s all it was, a table beside the green. As you checked your card, folks would be leaning in, making comments, asking you questions.

I was still thinking, gosh, what a shame, as I wrote in the last two scores for Roberto—bogey 5 at the last and par 4 at 17—a 4 that was sadly, infamously incorrect. Then I slid the card across the table for Roberto to check. But he was still in semi-shock over his finish; he just sat there, head in hands.

An Augusta National member came up and said, “Roberto, they want you in the press room.” That took him out of his trance. He scribbled his signature on the card—without checking it at all—and walked off to face the media.

I sat there for a moment, gazing up at the big scoreboard. Something was wrong—they had Roberto for a 65, one less than I did. Immediately I saw my mistake, the 4 I’d given him on 17.

“Ohmygod,” I said, loud enough for a nearby Masters official to ask what was wrong.

“I’ve signed an incorrect scorecard,” I said. “I have to talk to Roberto.”

Moments later, in a hushed voice, I said, “Roberto, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but the scorecard you signed has an error. I gave you a 4 on 17 instead of a 3.”

His initial reaction is something I’ve never shared publicly until now. He looked at me and said, “Let’s just change it.” To this day, I’m convinced those words were totally innocent, a reflection of the shock he was in. Nonetheless, I was taken aback.

“Roberto,” I said, “we can’t do that, it would be breaking the Rules.”

He snapped to reality immediately. ”Yes, of course,” he said. “That’s right.”

The two of us sat at the table as the last few groups finished. Goalby, despite a bogey at 17, was declared the champion, his 277 total one less than what Roberto had signed for. 

In truth, there were no winners that day. Roberto was the most tragic, but poor Bob got tons of hate mail, and I took some hits as well, despite a defense from Jack Nicklaus: “There’s no way it was Tommy’s fault,” he told the media, “it was Roberto’s responsibility to check his card.”

I can’t tell you the demons I fought through five years later to win a green jacket myself. Ironically, in the final round that year my playing companion, Johnny Miller, recorded an incorrect score for me on one hole. But I checked my card and caught it.