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Fifty years for Tommy Aaron: Green Jacket only part of the lasting legacy of '73 Masters champ
Tommy Aaron5.jpg
Gainesville's Tommy Aaron. Photo courtesy Megan Martin

Take a trip up Thompson Bridge Road, just a few miles north of downtown Gainesville, and a motorist will come across an opportunity to turn onto Tommy Aaron Drive.

A left turn at that intersection will take that motorist toward the Chattahoochee Golf Club, where multiple signs and references to the road’s namesake, and the club’s most celebrated member, are prominent.

Those are only some of many different visible tributes in and around town to Aaron, one of Gainesville’s most recognizable citizens, and certainly its most recognizable golf ambassador.

So, it seems that his championship at the 1973 Masters — the 50th anniversary of which falls Sunday, the same day as the final round of this year’s tournament at fabled Augusta National Golf Club — and Aaron himself have left a lasting legacy in town and throughout Hall County.

The only questions, then, revolve around just how much of a legacy the former accomplishment has had and exactly the nature of that legacy.

The answers really depend on who you ask.

While he doesn’t deny that he is one of Gainesville’s most recognizable golfers, Aaron himself sees the legacy of his Masters championship as being somewhat limited in scope.

In fact, he says that he and his name are in some ways more recognizable outside of Gainesville than within it.

“Well, yes I am (recognized), but I’m 86 years old, and I played my best golf in the ‘70s, … which is a long time ago,” Aaron explained. “There weren’t many people in town who played golf (back then). The ones that did followed me, and they understood what I’d done, but Gainesville was never a golf town. So, a lot of people didn’t really understand what I’d done. They didn’t realize the significance of the Masters and how it’s viewed around the world.”

“A friend of mine went to London once and was asked by somebody where he was from. He said, ‘Gainesville, Georgia,’ and the other man said, ‘Oh, that’s where Tommy Aaron is from.’”

While Aaron may have a point, at least some friends and acquaintances both in the golfing community in town and the general community are of the opinion that he underestimates the impact his Masters title and entire career have had on Gainesville and Hall County.

One of those people is Rodger Hogan, the club professional at Chattahoochee, who has known Aaron since taking his first job as an assistant professional in 1986.

While Hogan agrees with Aaron’s assessment that he is in some ways better known as a Masters champion outside of Gainesville, there’s a pretty good reason for that, and it actually accentuates how beloved he is in town.

“I think Tommy and I have talked about this all the time,” Hogan said. “Growing up in Kentucky, if I called the two clubs I grew up playing at and said, ‘Hey, I’m coming to town and need a tee time, and I’m bringing Tommy Aaron with me, the ’73 Masters champion,’ when we teed off at either one of those clubs, there’d be 300 people following us the whole way. It would be a huge deal.

“My take on it is, he was born (in Gainesville), grew up here, went to school here. He was always Tommy. I see it in the pro shop here. I see people that walk in that have lived here all their lives and say, ‘Hey Tommy, how you doing?’ And they just go on. When I started back here (at Chattahoochee) 14 years ago, I had some signs made up above the pro shop that’s got his picture of Nicklaus putting the (green) jacket on him. Well, people walk in and point at it and ask, ‘What’s that all about?’ I’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s Tommy Aaron. This is his home course. He grew up Gainesville. He lives on the sixth fairway.’ It is a huge deal. To people who come in here, it is a big deal.”

That said, there’s no denying the impact Aaron has had on not only golf in Gainesville and all of Hall County, but also the larger community.

To current golfers like Gainesville’s junior phenom Hudson Justus, the chance to play with a legend like Aaron is the opportunity of a lifetime.

“It was very cool,” said the 11-year-old Justus, who competed in the national Drive, Chip and Putt competition at Augusta National last weekend. “Not a lot of people get (to play) with someone who has won The Masters, or any major, out there on the course. It’s just very cool.”

Justus has actually played a round with Aaron twice, and the second time, his father Scott just couldn’t resist the opportunity to join in, and was just as excited for the chance to play with the local legend as his son.

“Never did we think we’d have an opportunity to play with a Masters champion,” Scott Justus said. “Now with Hudson playing at Chattahoochee (it is exciting). Hudson’s actually played with him twice. I was fortunate enough to be at the golf course that day with my clubs the second time. … It’ll be one of my highlights, that I got to play with a Masters champion. I don’t care how I played. It’s a great experience.”

Aaron has also had an impact on the impact on the growth of golf throughout Hall County, though he points out two caveats to the connection.

For one thing, his impact goes back a lot further than his Masters victory 50 years ago to when he was a high school state champion at Gainesville High in the early 1960s.

In addition. Aaron credits at least some of the growth of the game to population grown in and around the Lake Lanier area throughout the past half-century.

Still, it’s hard to argue that Aaron hasn’t had at least some impact on the visibility and growth of golf locally dating back to the construction of Chattahoochee, and back when the thoroughfare that now bears his name was only a dirt road.

“Gainesville was really a non-golf town,” Aaron recalled. “Now, it’s so much larger. Lake Lanier’s had a lot to do with it. It’s growing and people are moving here from other places and (who) play golf. There’s great golf programs in the high schools. It’s so very different now. There are eight public schools in the county and (three) private schools, and they all play golf. They all have boys and girls golf teams.

“I guess (the Masters title) did (impact the growth of golf in Hall County). Once Chattahoochee opened up, there were not a lot of people playing. But as the town grew larger, more people started playing. So that’s about it.”

Aaron’s sentiments aren’t the least surprising to Megan Martin.

As the vice president for marketing and development for the North Georgia Community Foundation, Martin has worked with Aaron in maintaining an annual scholarship fund for a high school student in Hall County that he established in 2006.

And she sees Aaron’s minimization of his impact on local golf is a reflection on how down to earth he is.

“I think that’s the nature of him. I think Tommy’s a very humble man,” Martin said. “That’s the beautiful thing about (his) legacy. Whether he feels it now or in the future, it’ll always be remembered because of who he is.

“I think all of us are going to leave a legacy. We never know who it’s going to impact. If he’s assuming that it doesn’t impact anything or (nobody) will remember him, it’s just not true. He will always have that legacy and live on.”

The scholarship fund Aaron established with the NGCF wasn’t really designed to commemorate his own legacy as much as it was for the man who helped support him as he pursued his dream of playing professional golf while he was growing up in Gainesville.

It also is designed to help a young person each year to pursue his or her own dreams.

“It’s just something I wanted to do to honor my father (Charlie), who really was the one that was so encouraging about playing golf and wanted me to play every chance I got in the summer and get to college tournaments,” Aaron said. “So it was just a way of me giving back to the community and golf. It’s not really a golf scholarship. It’d be nice for (the recipient) to know something about golf. Some of them do, but the only thing they know, some of them, is that they drove the golf cart once with their father.”

To date, the Tommy Aaron/Charlie Aaron scholarship fund has been awarded to 15 graduating high school seniors from Hall County Public Schools, Gainesville High School or Lakeview Academy — the recipient of the 16th student this spring is still under review — who have demonstrated integrity, sportsmanship, and honesty, good social and community skills, an interest in golf, a minimum 2.5 GPA, demonstrated financial need and has provided approximately $150,000 in scholarship money.

And while it was established more as a tribute to the elder Aaron, Martin says it also serves as an example of the younger Aaron’s generosity, and will be a lasting legacy for him that will last every bit as long as his 1973 Masters title.

“I knew Tommy personally before I worked at the foundation,” Martin said. “I’ve been here seven years, and I’ve always loved working with him on this scholarship. You can tell that it’s near and dear to his heart to pour into the next generation, and also to honor his father’s legacy.

“And he also loves the game of golf, so he’s able to tie all his passions together for the love of the community, for family, for love of the game and give scholarships to help someone go on to achieve their dreams. I know he would say that part of his success came from so many people that came around him and for him and were in his corner. One of the beautiful things about the scholarship fund is, he’s able to be in someone else’s corner by supporting them in their next endeavor and their dreams in the future.”

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