Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
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 except for 18-hole playoffs.
There was, however, a blissful calm for Gainesville’s Tommy Aaron, who started and closed with 68s to post a 283 total to win by one stroke over J. C. Snead, who had trouble at the 12th hole where he failed to heed the advice of his famous uncle, Sam Snead.
“You never hit it short at No. 12 — always play the yardage,” Sam 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 which 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 — with a two-stroke penalty (which 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. Aaron was not about to celebrate. Weiskopf finished with a bogie and Aaron, at last, had that official tour win.
The Masters victory validated his career. After the downpour in 1973 — which lasted most all of Saturday, bringing about a two-tee start Sunday and a final round Monday — Aaron trailed by four strokes after 54 holes. On Monday when the sun had reappeared, 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 the Gainesville golf 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 in 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, the Masters Chairman at the time, 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 a quarter-pounder 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 — seeing 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.