Long before Tommy Aaron was the 1973 Masters champion, he was a student-athlete at Gainesville High. And years prior to earning his fame along with a green jacket at Augusta, Aaron was a multi-talented high school athlete with dreams of making his mark on the football field.
“Growing up, all I ever heard about was Gainesville Red Elephants football,” Aaron said. “That’s what I wanted to do. Golf was just something I did in the summer.”
Now, he’ll be honored as one of the school’s athletic legends in its inaugural athletic hall of fame class during Saturday’s ceremony at Scott’s Downtown. Aaron is one of seven players given the nod, along with legendary Gainesville football coach Bobby Gruhn.
The 1956-57 Fair Street High football team, which won back-to-back state championships, will be the first team honored, for its accomplishments before schools were integrated.
Aaron never got much recognition for his accomplishments on the golf course growing up, despite the fact that he won two Georgia Open titles before going to the University of Florida. Many thought his time would have been better spent working on the other sports he played — football and basketball — or even picking up a part-time job.
“Most people thought golf was a waste of time,” Aaron said. “They thought I should be bagging groceries during my summers instead.”
Aaron was a trailblazer for the talented Red Elephants’ golf program to this day.
Aaron won an individual state title with Gainesville, earned a couple of individual SEC championships with the Gators and, of course, one of golf’s most prestigious events at Augusta National in 1973.
“It’s a great honor,” Aaron said of his induction. “I’ve always loved Gainesville High.”
Back then, golf was not as easily accessible as it is today.
There was only one, nine-hole course in Gainesville at the time and virtually no one his age to compete with, so Aaron was largely self-taught.
In his first three years at the school, there was no golf team, but Aaron did have a chance to compete at the high school level as a senior. According to Aaron, Gruhn took notice of Aaron’s skills on the golf course, so he cobbled together a team of four to take to the high school state championship event at Valdosta in 1955.
“I can still see Bobby Gruhn picking out guys in the hallway and asking them, ‘Do you play golf?’” Aaron said. “And they’d say yes. But these guys played maybe once or twice a year.”
Aaron had the best individual score among all golfers. He doesn’t remember what the other members of his team scored, but it wasn’t good enough for the Red Elephants to place very high as a team.
Aaron competed at the Masters 40 times, finishing in the top 10 six times. He is also the oldest player to make the cut at Augusta, doing so at the age of 63 in 2000. Aaron has already been inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, so entering the Gainesville Athletics Hall of Fame checks off yet another box of recognition in Aaron’s illustrious career.
“It’s a great honor to be in the first induction class,” Aaron said. “There’s a lot of great athletes that have been through Gainesville High, but I guess winning the most recognized tournament in the world says a lot for you.”