Golf

April 11, 2013

Loran Smith: Aaron's win a special Masters moment

AUGUSTA — Forty years ago this week, inclement weather prevailed at the Masters. Heavy rains washed out the third round, which resulted in a Monday finish — one of the few times that has happened outside of the 18-hole-playoffs the tournament formerly used.

There was, however, a blissful calm for Gainesville’s Tommy Aaron, who started and closed with 68s to post a 283 and win by one stroke over J. C. Snead, who had trouble at the twelfth hole. It was there that he failed to heed the advice of his famous uncle, Sam Snead.

“You never hit it short at No. 12 — always play the yardage,” Snead once said. “It cost my nephew. He hit it in the water, and it cost him the Masters.”

Aaron is one of three Georgians to win the state’s famous tournament. The others were Claude Harmon of Savannah in 1948 and Larry Mize of Augusta in 1987.

For years, Aaron did not win on the PGA Tour, something that had him facing constant review as golf’s perennial bridesmaid. Then he won the Canadian Open in 1959 by defeating, of all people, Sam Snead in a playoff — but, in those years, the tour did not count the Canadian Open as an official tour event.

Finally, in 1970 at the Atlanta Country Club, Aaron — despite a two-stroke penalty he called on himself — finished the final hole on Sunday with the lead. Lurking behind in the field was the lanky Tom Weiskopf.

With his superlative distance off the tee, Weiskopf could have made birdie and slipped into the winner’s circle. Even when Weiskopf hooked his ball in the lake, which caused an excited buzz among Aaron’s family and friends in the tent behind the 18th green, Aaron did not celebrate. He knew that with the penalty shot, Weiskopf could reach the green with his third shot and make par to tie and force a playoff. But Weiskopf finished with a bogie and Aaron, at last, had that official tour win.  

The Masters victory validated Aaron’s career. After the downpour in 1973 — which lasted most of Saturday, bringing about a two-tee start on Sunday and a final-round Monday — Aaron trailed by four strokes after 54 holes. When the sun reappeared on Monday, Aaron closed with one of the best rounds of his career, a sparkling 68.

He was the Masters champion.   

As a kid growing up in Gainesville, where his father Charlie was the pro at a local course, Aaron often thought of what it would be like to win the Masters. As a young competitor he played well at Augusta in several tournaments, but had never put four rounds together that would have put him in contention. It all fell into place in 1973.

Interestingly, Jack Nicklaus, then the most prominent player on the tour, had put himself in a difficult position with a second-round 77.   Otherwise, he might have overtaken the leaders in the final round. Nicklaus shot 66 on Monday, which is why Aaron’s steady 68, in which he made a number of four- and five-footers to save par or make birdie, brought him a green jacket.

After the round, Aaron was invited to dinner by Cliff Roberts, Masters chairman, but didn’t really want to stay. His wife Jimmye had missed the tournament while recuperating from surgery. Aaron was anxious to return home.

I arranged for a friend to fly him home and drove his car to Gainesville. Stopping at a McDonald’s on Washington Road, I found Jack Nicklaus and Carey Middlecoff enjoying quarter-pounders and said to Nicklaus, “Surprised to see you here.”

He quipped, “Two strokes better and I would be eating at the club.”

Every April, Aaron dons his Masters jacket with the greatest of affection as he recalls his high moment at Augusta. He doesn’t play anymore but enjoys time under the big oak and in the clubhouse, where he sees old friends.

He attends the Champions dinner, hosted by the most recent Masters winner, and then drives home to Gainesville to watch the final round on television.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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