Fifty years ago, Tommy Aaron shook off the controversy that had plagued him at the Masters to finally win the title he so desperately craved. This is his story
There aren’t many Masters champions who are more famous for something other than slipping into golf’s most famous item of clothing.
Green Jacket glory in 1973 aside, Tommy Aaron’s playing record is largely unremarkable. His career, though, is anything but.
“It’s been half a century since the strangest day in my playing career, but even in my 80s I can remember every detail as if it were yesterday,” Aaron wrote as part of Links magazine’s ‘I Was There’ series in 2018.
The American is referring to his role in the infamous scorecard error that cost Roberto De Vicenzo a shot at winning the Masters in 1968. De Vicenzo had rolled in a short birdie putt on Augusta’s 17th, but Aaron had marked him down for a par.
De Vicenzo, who according to a number of players, had a history of being something of a loose cannon when it came to signing his scorecard, scribbled his name and headed off to the press tent for post-round interviews, presumably about how he was feeling ahead of what looked like would be a hard-earned playoff with Bob Goalby.
“My first thought was, he didn’t check his scorecard. I hope to hell it was right,” Aaron told Global Golf Post in an interview ahead of the 2022 Masters.
But Aaron caught sight of one of Augusta’s famous scoreboards near the 18th green, and his mood turned quickly. “I looked at his card and I went right to the 17th and I thought, ‘Oh, my God. He made three there, and I put down four.’”
A nearby official asked Aaron if everything was OK. Aaron shook his head gently and asked him to call De Vicenzo back to the scorer’s area – in those days a small table and chairs set up off the back of 18.
It was 20 minutes or so before the Argentinian returned, in which time Goalby had made the par on 18 he needed to force extra holes, while CBS had already announced Monday’s broadcast.
Aaron continued: “I said, ‘Roberto, I don’t know what to say, except I’m sorry.’ Roberto said, ‘Let’s change it.’ I said, ‘We can’t do that, Roberto.’ He accepted that. He just sat in a chair with his head in his hands.”
At home, viewers were told to “stay tuned” because “there is a possibility we may have news of great importance” by commentator Pat Summerall.
The rules stated that the higher of the signed-for scores is the one that must stand, and instead of heading for extra holes with Goalby, De Vicenzo’s 65 became a 66 and he dropped back into second place.
“What a stupid I am,” De Vicenzo was later quoted as saying, while Goalby was also irked by how the biggest moment of his career came about, and was spoiled, by a clerical error.
“It was awkward,” he told Golf Digest in 2018. “It was tragic for Roberto, but it was equally unfortunate for me. I never did get full credit for what I’d done. I played damned well, especially the last day.”
Despite the backing of his peers – Jack Nicklaus told the media that “there’s no way it was Tommy’s fault – it was Roberto’s responsibility to check his card” – the mistake haunted Aaron, who had a string of runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour but struggled most when it came to getting over the line.
Fifteen months after his Augusta hiccup, Aaron did win a Canadian Open.
“He’s got to have led more tournaments than Arnold Palmer,” Snead said of Aaron during that tournament. “But he still hasn’t won one yet, and I can’t understand it. He swings as well as anyone on the tour.”
As it happened, Aaron would shoot a final-round 64 to tie then 57-year-old Sam Snead at the top of the leaderboard, before beating the man who had 82 more titles than him in a playoff.
But if you think he had cut that particular deficit to 81, you’d be mistaken. Ongoing disputes meant it came in a year when the tournament wasn’t an official PGA Tour event, with that honour going to the American Golf Classic, which was played the same week in Ohio.
And while there was still a strong field in Montreal that included Snead, De Vicenzo, Billy Casper, Tony Jacklin, and Doug Sanders, at this point, Aaron would be forgiven for thinking the golfing gods were never going to be on his side.
The tournament did, however, carry Ryder Cup points, and Aaron’s victory set him up for the first of two appearances in the biennial showdown between the United States and, as it was then, Great Britain & Ireland. The first of which, at Royal Birkdale, was the scene of the famous concession between Nicklaus and Jacklin.
Aaron had a mixed debut, returning one and a half points from a possible four, and was watching on from behind the 18th green when Nicklaus picked up his opponent’s marker to confirm a half in not only their match but the competition as a whole – a move that these days is often cited in listicles on the most sporting acts of all time, but at the time infuriated a nation.
Aaron was bemused by his fellow rookie’s generosity and even suggested he didn’t perhaps understand the consequence. “I had the impression,” Aaron explained, “this was something he hadn’t planned, but it just happened very quickly because he was so happy about making his putt.”
Fast forward to May 1970 and Aaron finally won that PGA Tour title he craved when he lifted the Atlanta Classic, merely an hour from his hometown of Gainesville, Georgia.
But even that wasn’t void of drama. Leading Dan Sikes comfortably on the 14th hole of the final round, Aaron was forced to dock himself two shots after taking an illegal drop. His birdie became a bogey and his lead was cut to one.
“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?’”
But Aaron held on to win by a single stroke and get the heaviest of weights off his shoulders.
Aaron would win a couple more times – limited-field events in France and Japan – but it was a runner-up finish to Gary Player at the 1972 PGA Championship that punched his ticket to Augusta a few months later.
Now 36, Aaron arrived on Magnolia Lane with a fine record of four top-10s and just one missed cut – which had come 12 months prior – while a tie for fourth in Phoenix was his only finish in the build-up worth writing home about.
A fine 68 saw the Georgia native lead by one through 18 holes over defending champion Nicklaus and a young Masashi “Jumbo” Ozaki – at this point still a month away from winning the first of his record-breaking 94 Japan Tour titles – but a stumbling 73 on Friday saw him joined at the top by Gay Brewer, Bob Dickson, and Jesse Snead heading into the weekend.
But then Mother Nature took over and sweeping storms across the state meant Saturday’s play was wiped out. The tournament resumed 24 hours later and a 74 meant Aaron would go into the final round at one-under par and four off the lead of Peter Oosterhuis, a 23-year-old Englishman chasing his own maiden major.
“I hit the ball very poorly in the third round,” Aaron said at the time. “I shot 74 and was fortunate to shoot that.”
As the 37th Masters spilt into what would be the fourth of just five Monday finishes in the tournament’s history, Aaron was feeling confident after a positive range session ahead of his tee time.
It certainly helped. He needed just 32 strokes to play the front nine and at the turn found himself tied for the lead once again. But bogeys at 10 and 11 saw him slip two back, before, encouraged by a birdie at 13, he was left with a difficult choice at 15.
After a poor drive, Aaron was forced to decide between laying up or going for the green. “As I stood there and pulled out this three-wood, there were a lot of people from Gainesville up on those mounds,” he explained. “I heard this collective groan. ‘Oh, no! I can’t believe he’s going for the green.’ I couldn’t have hit a better shot under the circumstances.”
That final birdie took Aaron back to five-under which, with his opponents stuttering under the pressure, was enough to earn a green jacket.
Aaron was a major champion at last. But the drama wasn’t even close to being over.
His playing partner, Johnny Miller, who two months later would become the first player to shoot 63 in a major championship, marked Aaron down for a par-five at the 13th. But Aaron caught the mistake before scribbling his signature on the card.
Later, he told reporters about the incident, which angered Miller somewhat – “He thought I was trying to throw him under the bus” – but all that mattered was the victory he had craved his entire life.
Aaron never won on the PGA Tour again, though he did add a third Georgia Open and one victory on the senior circuit to his resume. He would play in 31 more Masters – missing the cut in 19 of them and a tie for 28th in 1979 his best finish.
But Aaron wasn’t done with the history books just yet. In 2000, at the age of 63, he became the oldest player to make the cut at Augusta, and it was a record he held until Bernhard Langer broke it by just 31 days – thanks largely in part to the tournament’s pandemic-forced shift to November.
Not that Aaron will mind. He already had what he wanted.
“It was really a dream come true for me to win and know that you will always be a Masters champion on that trophy,” he said. “It means the world to me.”
1973 Masters top 10
-5 Tommy Aaron ($30,000)
-4 Jesse Snead ($22,500)
-3 Jim Jamieson, Jack Nicklaus, Peter Oosterhuis ($12,500)
E Bob Goalby, Johnny Miller ($6,250)
+1 Bruce Devlin, Masashi Ozaki ($4,250)
+3 Gay Brewer, Gardner Dickson, Don January, Chi-Chi Rodriguez ($3,425)
Tommy Aaron’s Masters record
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