That Tommy Aaron became the first born-and-bred Georgian to win the Masters Tournament isn’t the most amazing part in his golfing journey. That Tommy Aaron played golf at all is somewhat of a miracle.
“I probably have the most non-golf background of anybody who played professional golf,” said Aaron, who taught himself the game on a hardscrabble nine-hole track that was at the bottom of a lake by the time he went to college. “I won a couple state amateurs and opens and made the Walker Cup team without a course in my hometown.”
Aaron built a career in golf with a swing the late Dan Jenkins once described as having “more things that could go wrong with it under pressure than the lead car in a freeway traffic jam.” But that swing took Aaron to amateur success, three PGA Tour wins, a couple of Ryder Cups and the champions’ locker room at Augusta National Golf Club.
Not bad for a player with no formal training but the grit and determination to follow his dream to a life on tour he harbored since listening to the grownups where his father worked tell stories about the Masters heroes.
“I used to sit and listen to them talk about those great players, and that’s what I wanted to do,” Aaron said. “Most people around town thought me playing golf was a waste of time.”
Aaron was born in Gainesville, Georgia, but moved when he was a kid to Toccoa and then across the Savannah River to Westminster, South Carolina, not far from Clemson. When he was 12 he played at his first real course, Boscobel, in nearby Pendleton, South Carolina.
“As a kid I didn’t have much instruction,” he said. “My father wanted me to have a short and flat swing.”
His family moved back to Gainesville – “a non-golf town then,” he called it – and with that the prospects of his golf future seemed bleak. Gainesville High School didn’t have a golf team, and Aaron’s organized athletic pursuits with the Red Elephants were football, basketball and track.
“I had two uncles who played football at Georgia,” said Aaron, who played quarterback. “That’s all I heard about. I wanted to play football for Gainesville High. I just played golf in summer when I’d started reading about the Masters in the Atlanta newspaper.”
The only facility in town was a scruffy nine-holer with no tee markers and bamboo flagsticks with rags tied to them to mark the holes. Aaron spent his summers figuring out the game there or by hitching rides with clubs over his shoulder an hour down the road to play Athens Country Club. Most often, he just beat a bag of balls behind a mill in Gainesville.
That hometown course, such as it was, was gone by the time Aaron went to college. It’s at the bottom of Lake Lanier, a reservoir created with the completion of the Buford Dam in 1956. The lake area has become a thriving golf destination since, and Aaron says eight public schools in Hall County (where Gainesville is the county seat) have boys and girls golf teams.
Aaron, however, had such a natural ability to play golf that Gainesville’s football coach Bobby Gruhn cobbled together a golf team to send to Valdosta for the high school state championship in 1955. Aaron shot the lowest individual score.
“I can still see Bobby Gruhn picking out guys in the hallway and asking them, ‘Do you play golf?’” Aaron told The Gainesville Times when he and Gruhn were inducted into the inaugural Gainesville Athletic Hall of Fame in 2019. “And they’d say yes. But these guys played maybe once or twice a year.”
Aaron wrote letters to the coaches at Southeastern Conference universities asking about an opportunity to play golf in college. The director of athletics at Florida gave the coach one SEC grant-in-aid scholarship, so Aaron hopped onto a Greyhound bus from one Gainesville to another and played for the Gators in 1956-59.
It was in Gainesville, Florida, where his game took off.
“I played every afternoon, and that’s where I improved a lot,” Aaron said.
Did he ever. Aaron won his first Georgia Amateur in 1957, beating Gummy Harrison Jr., 2 and 1, at Augusta Country Club, across Rae’s Creek from Augusta National. He won it again in 1960 when the state am was converted to stroke play, beating hometown favorite Billy Key at the Country Club of Columbus. Those same years, Aaron won the Georgia State Open as well (an event he won for a third time in 1975).
Though Aaron won Southeastern Conference individual titles in 1957 and ’58, he had bigger ambitions that drove him.
“I just wanted to play and had the goal of making the Walker Cup and did whatever I had to do to get to tournaments,” he said.
He rode buses and trains all over the country to compete in major amateur events. He stayed in a Bethlehem Steel fishing camp (along with eventual IMG founder Mark McCormack) for the Sunnehanna, which Aaron won the first time he played, in 1959. He played in the U.S. Amateur in 1958 at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, losing to legendary veteran Charlie Coe in the scheduled 36-hole final, 5 and 4.
Aaron was invited to compete in the 1959 Walker Cup matches at Muirfield on a team that included playing captain Coe, Jack Nicklaus, Harvie Ward, Billy Joe Patton, Deane Beman and Bill Hyndman.
“Those things got me in the Masters,” he said of his first two appearances as an amateur, in 1959 and 1960.
After winning a few prominent amateur tournaments in 1960 including the prestigious Western, Aaron turned pro late in the year. He qualified to debut in the Cajun Classic in Lafayette, Louisiana, in November. He cobbled together made cuts to go from there to invitationals in Mobile, Alabama, and West Palm Beach and Coral Gables, Florida.
“I just kept making enough money to keep going,” said Aaron, who married his high school sweetheart, Jimmye, before embarking on tour life.
His autumn success earned a start in the 1961 season-opening Los Angeles Open, so he took off to California with $800 in his pocket and no backers.
“I made a couple thousand dollars in L.A. that first week, and if I’d missed the cut I would have been broke,” he said. “I qualified at Pebble Beach in 1961 the next week and never had to qualify again until 1979.”
The Masters was always Aaron’s dream. He’d met Bobby Jones while qualifying at East Lake for the national amateur. “He rode in a cart to watch me play a few holes but left because he thought it made me nervous,” Aaron said.
Getting to play the Masters twice as an amateur was a proud accomplishment. He played with former champion Cary Middlecoff in his 1959 debut. In 1960 he finished T25, though Walker Cup teammates Nicklaus and Patton shared low-amateur honors, playing four shots better.
Dan Jenkins described the 1973 Masters in Sports Illustrated as “the craziest Masters ever played, very nearly the longest, among the wettest.”
“It was a great thrill because this was something I dreamt about as a kid growing up; it was so close (to home),” he said. “With me it was always the Masters.”
Despite missing the cut his first time, Aaron got a taste for how big a deal the Masters was.
“On the 14th hole I was beside the green while Middlecoff was putting and a Catholic priest from Gainesville pulled me away and was introducing me to four or five people,” Aaron said. “He didn’t know anything about golf.”
It took five years for Aaron to finally make it back to the Masters as a professional. There was a points competition on tour from Los Angeles to Greensboro to book a place at Augusta. And past champions could vote for one player to be invited. Aaron said Jimmy Demaret, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead voted him in in 1965.
Aaron made the most of it by consistently playing well and earning a trip back. He finished tied for 11th, 13th, eighth, seventh, eighth, fifth and 22nd from 1965 to ’71, each result qualifying him to return the next year.
“I did play well there, but I don’t have any real reason why I did,” he said. “I actually felt more pressure there playing because local people came and watched, and they had expectations. I don’t think I came very close to winning. I had good tournaments, but not a real good chance to win.”
In 1972 he missed the cut, meaning he would have to find another avenue back to Augusta in 1973. He finished second to Gary Player in the ’72 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills to do just that.
Dan Jenkins described the 1973 Masters in Sports Illustrated as “the craziest Masters ever played, very nearly the longest, among the wettest.”
“Tommy Aaron, a nice, quiet fellow who seems seldom to smile because he seldom has reason, will think back on it quite differently, of course,” Jenkins wrote. “Tommy Aaron did something he rarely does. He won.”
It had taken nine years and nine second-place finishes before Aaron won his first big event, in an 18-hole playoff over Sam Snead at the 1969 Canadian Open. He won again in 1970 at the Atlanta Classic. He twice lost in playoffs in 1972 to increase his runner-up tally to 14. As the 1973 tour season rolled toward its spring date at Augusta National, there was no real reason to point to Aaron as a contender.
“The thing I remember most about it was I’d start in L.A. and the West Coast and then the Florida swing, but that year my wife was in the hospital and had complications after surgery and I stayed home a lot,” Aaron said. “I just remember I hadn’t played much when I went to Augusta. I played Greensboro the week before and was fair. I didn’t expect much and was just relieved that my wife was out of hospital.”
Aaron recalled the first round was cool and he had a poor warmup on the range. But one good shot in the round ignited him, and he fired a 4-under 68 to take the first-round lead by a shot over defending champion Nicklaus and Jumbo Ozaki.
He shot 73 on Friday and shared the 36-hole lead with three others. After Saturday’s round got washed out and postponed, a Sunday 74 left him four strokes behind 54-hole leader Peter Oosterhuis heading to a Monday finish.
“Those middle rounds I shot 73-74 and struggled to even post those scores,” Aaron said. “I missed a lot of greens. The morning before the last round I was four shots behind and went to the range to figure it out.”
He found something that worked.
“When I was warming up for the last round, I wasn’t trying to generate power with my swing,” he said. “All of a sudden the ball started going straighter and farther. Just make a nice swing and accept what I get and have the mental discipline to do that every shot today.”
Fifty years later, Aaron still gets emotional thinking about the final round in 1973 with his parents, Charlie and Helen, there watching as his wife recuperated at home with their two young children.
“Every time I think about that,” he said, struggling to get the words out even now. “Just winning and how important it was to me and my parents. The fact my parents were there and had been so supportive of me.”
Aaron was playing Monday with Johnny Miller, both of them in a group tied for fifth. By the time they made the turn, Aaron was tied for the lead with J.C. Snead.
“I birdied 1, 2 and 3 and shot 32 on the front and shot myself back into the tournament,” he said. “I remember walking to the 10th tee thinking, ‘If I can play a good back nine…’ ”
Aaron promptly bogeyed 10 and 11 to fall two behind Snead.
“I walked to the 12th tee and thought I may have just lost that chance,” he said. “All I can do is play the best I can. I hit a nice shot on 12 and didn’t even think about it.”
“Went to Butler Cabin and watched the finish beside Nicklaus. Jack says, ‘You’ve got the tournament won; there’s no way (Snead) can make that par putt on 17.’ It went in and I said, ‘Nice (expletive) observation, Jack!’” – Tommy Aaron
Aaron birdied 13 at the same time Snead deposited a ball into Rae’s Creek and doubled 12 behind him. Another birdie at 15 after a deft chip back from long over the green moved him to 5-under. He got in the clubhouse with a 68 and had to wait to see whether Snead or Oosterhuis could catch him.
“Went to Butler Cabin and watched the finish beside Nicklaus,” Aaron said. “Jack says, ‘You’ve got the tournament won; there’s no way (Snead) can make that par putt on 17.’ It went in and I said, ‘Nice (expletive) observation, Jack!’”
Snead had one last chance for a tying birdie, from about 20 feet on 18.
“I had to get mentally ready for an 18-hole playoff because it will not surprise me if this goes in,” Aaron said of watching from the Butler Cabin, where CBS showed him on a split screen. “Can’t wish he’d miss it. I was thinking he was going to make it.”
Snead pulled it too firmly left and Aaron was the victor. “If anybody else won the Masters but me, I’m glad Tommy won it. I really am,” said Snead, who hammered his head with his fist on 18 in frustration after coming up short.
Aaron’s green jacket triumph at age 36 had one more interesting wrinkle to it: a scorecard error. Aaron had famously been the one to mark down the incorrect score (a par on 17 instead of a birdie) for final-round playing competitor Roberto de Vicenzo in 1968, an error which the Argentine failed to notice before signing, and it cost him a playoff opportunity against Bob Goalby.
When Aaron looked over his own card in 1973, he saw Miller had incorrectly marked him down for a par 5 on 13 instead of a birdie 4. Aaron, however, caught the error before signing.
“Believe me, I always check my scorecard,” Aaron said. “I would finish last in a tournament and I was checking all my scores. When I sign it, that’s a binding contract. From the time I was 8 years old, I always understood how important that is.”
Five years earlier, that binding contract created the most infamous ending in Masters history. Aaron marked down a 4 where de Vicenzo had made a 3 on 17.
“We walked so quickly to 18 tee I didn’t have time to put the score down,” Aaron said of the figure he marked later. “I got so involved in him trying to make a 4 on 18 and that’s all I was thinking about.”
By the time Aaron quickly noticed his mistake, it was already too late.
“I found the error on the card and was still sitting at the table. People are trying to talk to you,” he said. “Charlie Coe said Roberto was wanted in the press room and he just grabbed his card, signed and darted out of there. When he did it, I thought, ‘My God, I hope it’s right,’ because he never looked at it.”
Aaron picked up the card and saw it was wrong. He called de Vicenzo back and informed him.
“I don’t know what to say; I put 4 on 17,” Aaron told him. “Roberto says, ‘Let’s change it.’ I said, ‘We can’t do that.’ He says, ‘You’re right.’ Nobody ever asked me about it. I was hoping somebody would come ask me what happened. All the writers wanted to do was attack me.”
There would be no such issue in 1973 with Aaron. He signed for the right number, and Nicklaus slipped a green jacket onto his shoulders.
Even Jenkins – who spent more ink detailing Nicklaus’ Friday 77 and Saturday triple at 15 that sank his chances than Aaron’s efforts – had to give the bespectacled golfer from Gainesville his due, even if he called him “one of those golfers on the tour you never seem to hear from. He is a tall guy with glasses and a billed cap and a loose swing and he can nearly hide from the crowd even when the fairways are roped off.”
“Aaron deserves a considerable amount of credit,” Jenkins conceded in SI. “While Nicklaus was shooting a marvelous 66 on Monday, trying to retake from all those blue-collar chaps the tournament he had turned over to them earlier – and in fact scaring off all but a few – Aaron had a fine and brave 68 himself, refusing to come apart as he almost always has in the past.”
When asked if winning had “ruined his image” as a serial bridesmaid, Aaron was happy to put that narrative to rest.
“I haven’t liked it,” he told The New York Times of his reputation for coming second. “I think it was overplayed. It was a label that was attached to me. It’s no crime to finish second. It’s just that I hadn’t won. The greatest player in the world, Jack Nicklaus, has finished second 33 times.”
Aaron’s major first put golf on the map in Gainesville, Georgia, where he still lives and plays when he can.
“If I hadn’t won the Masters, the people in Gainesville might not have known I’d played golf,” he said jokingly, though spirited support from his fellow Georgians at Augusta showed they knew who he was.
“Tommy is a wonderful man. Just a true gentleman. I enjoy seeing him every year. When I think of Tommy, I always think of that great golf swing that he had and the good player that he was.” – Larry Mize
It took 14 more years before another Georgian, Augusta’s own Larry Mize, won a green jacket. Mize worked the scoreboard on the third hole in 1973 when Aaron won and now shares dinners with him every April.
“Tommy is a wonderful man. Just a true gentleman. I enjoy seeing him every year,” Mize said. “When I think of Tommy, I always think of that great golf swing that he had and the good player that he was.
“I don’t know if (his win) opened it up for me or not. I mean, to me growing up there in Augusta I always dreamed of playing there and obviously winning the golf tournament. I just think it was a great victory for Tommy. I don’t know if it gave me much thought that it could happen. I dreamed it even before that.”
Aaron will make the 140-mile trip from Gainesville to Augusta for the 50th anniversary of his victory. It’s been a difficult year for Aaron, as his wife of nearly 63 years died in May. The 86-year-old Aaron also suffers from what he calls “a mild case” of Parkinson’s.
“No tremors, but I sometimes stumble over words,” he said.
Two years ago he still could walk and play 18 holes before nerve damage in his left leg made it difficult to walk. He plans to go to Augusta early on Saturday before the tournament and play that Sunday with a guest, then attend his 50th Champions Dinner on Tuesday.
“I don’t want to put my game on display in Par 3,” said the champion who set the record in 2000 for making the Masters cut at age 63 before Bernhard Langer clipped him by a month in 2020 thanks to the tournament being played in November instead of April.
From that drowned golf course to Magnolia Lane, it’s been one helluva journey for Aaron.
Top: Jack Nicklaus helps 1973 Masters champion Tommy Aaron with his green jacket. Photo: Augusta National, Getty Images
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