Tommy Aaron’s jaw dropped when he learned the purse for last weekend’s Tournament Players Championship was $25 million, and the winner took home $2.5 million.
In his first professional golf tournament, the total prize money was $30,000. Aaron and his wife Jimmye drove to the Los Angeles Open. The winner got $5,000. Aaron shot 74-66-70-70 and earned $1,500 plus a $500 bonus for the low round of 66.
The Gainesville native and Gainesville High School graduate went on to have an outstanding career on the Professional Golf Association tour, including a win at golf’s most prestigious tournament, the Masters, in 1973.
Friends are putting together a reception at 5 p.m. March 28 at Chattahoochee Golf Course’s grill to mark the 50th anniversary of his victory. Admission will be a $50 donation to the Tommy Aaron/Charlie Aaron Foundation Scholarship Fund.
Aaron’s climb to the pinnacle of golf competition wasn’t easy. He grew up in Gainesville in the 1950s when there were only a scattering of golfers, practically none his age. The only golf course was nine holes at the end of Woodsmill Road that soon would be covered by Lake Lanier. He didn’t complain. “I was glad to have a place to play,” he said, “even though it was in poor condition.”
His father, Charlie Aaron, pro at the little course and eventually at Chattahoochee, saw Tommy’s promise at an early age and encouraged him to practice and enter tournaments. The family lived in an old farmhouse that also served as the clubhouse for the golf course. Tommy would play with and caddy for older golfers because nobody his age was playing at the time.
Money was short, and rides to tournaments were hard to come by.
He played in an amateur tournament in Thomasville and didn’t have a way back to Gainesville. Hitchhiking with his golf bag and suitcase on the side of the road, he was picked up by Asa Candler III of the Coca-Cola family, who took him to Atlanta and found a ride back to Gainesville.
Aaron rode the train to Washington, D.C., to play an amateur tournament in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Somehow he made it to Johnstown, won the tournament, but again didn’t have a way back to Gainesville. A player’s father from Atlanta let him ride back with them.
As a 16-year-old, Aaron competed in a tournament in Columbus. He had fallen off his bicycle, scraped the skin off a foot and couldn’t get on his golf shoes. He had to play barefoot but made the finals with Mike McCormick, a Fort Benning Army officer. McCormick was dressed stylishly and had a large bag of clubs. In contrast, Aaron stood at the tee, barefoot and wearing Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt.
But he beat McCormick on the first extra hole in a playoff. McCormick, who later became head of the International Management Group, with Aaron, Tiger Woods and other athletes as clients, loved to tell that story to other golfers, Aaron said.
Aaron won the Georgia high school title and the Georgia Open in 1955. On a golf scholarship at the University of Florida, he won individual SEC titles two straight years. He was a finalist in the U.S. Amateur in 1958 and won the Georgia Open two more times before joining the pro tour in 1961.
Tommy had a large fan base, especially in Georgia, but he had no financial backers. “It was a big gamble,” he said, going out on the tour with just his own money. His first year turned out well, however, and in his second full year, 1963, he was 13th on the money list.
In subsequent years, he was in the upper category in winnings. He won his first major, the Canadian Open, in 1969, the Atlanta Classic in 1970, and climbed to ninth on the money list in 1972.
When he won the Masters in 1973, he collected $30,000. Last year’s winner, Scottie Scheffler, earned $2.7 million.
Besides the money he made, it was a great experience, he said, traveling all over the world, playing against the best golfers, meeting all the celebrities.
“I had some great thrills and have some great memories,” Aaron, 86, said, some of which he’ll probably relate at the March 28 reception.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or email@example.com. His column publishes weekly.