Twenty-five years ago this Masters, Roberto De Vicenzo became so distraught after bogeying the 18th hole at Augusta National that he hurriedly signed his scorecard and tossed it on the official scorer’s table without checking the numbers. Fortunately there was no mistake on his card. He had finished the third round two strokes behind the leader, Gary Player. To the horror and disappointment of the golf world, Roberto’s negligence was destined to be repeated the next day.
Editors’ note: This column originally ran in the April 1993 issue of Golf Digest. Overnight, World Golf Hall of Fame member Roberto De Vicenzo died at 94.
On Sunday afternoon, April 14, at five minutes past his 1 o’clock starting time, De Vicenzo struck a pure 9-iron shot from the first fairway that flew 135 yards into the hole for an eagle. Two minutes later, upon approaching the green, the gallery began singing “Happy Birthday”, for this day was the popular Argentinian’s 45th birthday.
On the 555-yard second hole, Roberto hit his fairway wood near the green, chipped close and made the putt for a birdie 4. On the third hole, he hit a good 3-wood off the tee and again nearly holed his 9-iron, for an easy birdie. Four-under after three holes.
The rest of the round was played in a fire-drill style that has become familiar at the Masters as De Vicenzo, Player, Bruce Devlin, Bert Yancey and Bob Goalby ran up and down the leaderboard.
De Vicenzo began to take control when he birdied the eighth from one foot, the 12th from 10 feet and the 15th with two putts. Again he hit it close on 17, so close that when he holed the birdie from four feet, Tommy Aaron, with whom he was paired, mistook it for a par putt. Normally meticulous about writing down scores after each hole, Aaron rushed to 18 with De Vicenzo.
Roberto drove to the right side of the fairway. His caddie was pressing a 6-iron to his hand. “No, no, give me 5,” he remembers saying. It was too much club. The ball landed past the flag and rolled down a hill over the green. He left his approach five feet short and missed. “Then all the things happen to me,” he recalls now.
De Vicenzo had bogeyed the 18th hole again, this time, he thought, costing himself the Masters. He walked dejectedly to the scorer’s table, which was located 40 feet or so behind the 18th green. Hiram C. Allen Jnr, a well-liked Augusta member without any rules experience, sat at this round umbrella table, out in the open, with no privacy. There were a couple of empty chairs, with a jostling gallery an arm’s length away.
Aaron took out De Vicenzo’s scorecard and marked down a 4 on 17 and a 5 on 18 and slid it across the table towards him. De Vicenzo slumped in the chair, staring at his card. Aaron remembers looking up a couple of times from checking his own card to see that De Vicenzo was not examining his own. Just then another man in a green coat came up and said, “Roberto, they’d like to see you in the pressroom.” De Vicenzo picked up a pencil, scrawled his name on the card, stood and walked towards the clubhouse.
Aaron remembers checking his card “seven or eight times” before handing it over to the official, only then noticing that De Vicenzo’s card was still lying on the table. “I picked it up and immediately realised the mistake I had made,” says Aaron, who pointed out to the scorer that De Vicenzo had signed an incorrect card, that he had made a 3 not a 4 on 17, that he had shot 65 not 66. De Vicenzo was summoned back from the pressroom. Ike Grainger, the co-chairman of the rules committee, was called to the 18th green to deliberate.
Grainger, now 98 years old, recalls the scene precisely. “People all around were wondering what the hell was happening,” he says. “I remember Aaron expressing great regret and Roberto holding his head in his hands. I knew what the ruling had to be. Every competitor is responsible for the correctness of the score recorded for each hole. If he returns a score for any hole higher than actually taken, the score as returned shall stand. But I wanted Roberto and everyone else to know we were giving him every benefit of the doubt.”
Grainger left the table and walked to the Butler Cabin, where Masters chairman Cliff Roberts was waiting to present the green coat to the winner. Then Grainger and Roberts walked over to the Jones Cottage, where Bobby Jones sat in a wheelchair. “What’s the trouble?” said Jones, and Grainger told him. “There’s nothing that can be done about it?” asked Jones. Grainger said no and Jones said, “Ike, I agree with you.”
Grainger then walked back to the scorer’s table and delivered the verdict to De Vicenzo, who accepted the news with equanimity. “It is my fault – nobody else,” he told the press a few minutes later. “I have played golf for many, many years. I have signed many cards and none of them wrong. All I can say is what a stupid I am to be wrong in this wonderful tournament.”
Many golf fans mistakenly thought that Roberto would have won the tournament outright. His error caused him to finish a stroke behind Bob Goalby. The correct score would only have tied him for the lead, requiring a playoff the next day over 18 holes.
That Sunday evening, after the traditional club dinner with the winner and runner-up, Roberto stepped onto the porch to leave when Grainger came up beside him. Before Ike could offer his condolence, it was Roberto who turned to him and said, “I sorry I cause you so much trouble.” A quarter century later, Ike Grainger remembers it as the greatest gesture of sportsmanship he had ever witnessed in almost 100 years of golf.
Roberto De Vicenzo won the Bob Jones Award for sportsmanship in 1970 and continues to be remembered in America more for the way he handled this defeat than for the 230 tournaments he’s won worldwide. Roberto turns 70 this April, still playing golf every day at home in Buenos Aires.
Bob Goalby got a green coat that was unfairly stained by an asterisk. He walked with a slight grouch until he turned 50; only then did he seem to loosen up and enjoy the senior tour, which he helped found.
Tommy Aaron won his own Masters in 1973. Ironically, in the final round, fellow competitor Johnny Miller wrote 5 instead of a 4 on Aaron’s card for the par-5 13th hole, but Aaron caught the mistake at the scorer’s table.
And speaking of the scorer’s table, it was forever changed. For the 1969 Masters, an ugly army-green tent was erected behind the 18th green and in it no longer sat a member. Hiram C. Allen Jnr, who blamed himself for the mishap and offered to resign his membership, was replaced by two men, a local certified public accountant and. a rules expert named Joe Black. To this day, the Masters asks Black and another rules authority, Tom Meeks, to sit in a less garish, but still highly private tent beside 18, guarding the Rules of Golf.