Tommy Aaron has the most captivating story of sporting triumph that any athlete from Gainesville can tell about himself.
Forty years after winning The Masters in 1973, the memories of a suspenseful and dramatic final round at Augusta National are just as sharp as the day he rallied back for the only major title of his long and successful professional golf career.
“I hadn’t played in a lot of tournaments leading up to The Masters in 1973, so I had no idea something so special was about to happen,” Aaron said.
On Thursday, Aaron was honored by Gainesville High with a ceremony to show appreciation for its prized graduate to mark 40 years since that magical weekend.
Along with his wife Jimmye, former high school classmates, school administration members and both the Red Elephants boys and girls golf teams were on hand to hear him fill in the details of growing up in a town where golf was an afterthought to eventually winning the top event in professional golf, thanks in large part to the guidance of his father Charlie Aaron.
“I was the only kid in Northeast Georgia playing golf in those days,” said Aaron, who graduated from Gainesville in 1955. “I’ve always had great support from Gainesville and Gainesville High.”
What everyone remembers most about Aaron’s pro career is that glorious day when he won in Augusta and slipped on the green jacket, cementing him forever as a Masters champion. He still gets excited rehashing the events of a final-round 68 — also his score from the first round — that was good enough to hold on for a 1-shot win over J.C. Snead.
Aaron still remembers the anxiety sitting in Butler Cabin beside Jack Nicklaus after turning in his score and waiting as Snead made a long birdie putt on No. 17, but two-putted No. 18 to secure victory for the Gainesville native.
Aaron set the tone for his remarkable final round at Augusta National by making birdies on the first three holes.
“I remember how happy I was that he won,” said Jimmye Aaron, who was at home in Gainesville with their two young children, unable to attend in person while recovering from surgery. “I can’t believe it’s been 40 years.”
Aaron’s path to golfing greatness wasn’t traditional. He was required to go out of his way to play. The only course in Gainesville when Aaron was young is now submerged in Lake Lanier where Longwood Park now sits.
Two of his favorite spots to drive golf balls when he got a little older were at the New Holland Mill and Riverside Military Academy, he told attendees.
He went to any length possible to play in tournaments — planes, trains and automobiles — including one that led him to hitchhike back from playing an event in Thomasville.
“I don’t recommend anyone do that today,” Aaron said with a grin.
Steadily, his professional career gained steam. Aaron was twice a Southeastern Conference champion at the University of Florida (1957, 58) and finished in the top 10 each year at The Masters from 1967-70. He also twice finished in the Top 10 at the PGA Championship.
In 2000, he became the oldest player to make the weekend cut at The Masters at 63 years old.
Aaron still resides in Gainesville.
“It’s very nice to be able to talk with him and hear his stories,” said Gainesville senior Pep Brown, a member of the boys golf team and the school’s student body president. “He really inspires all of us.”