With every official, competitor, and patron maintaining a hopeful eye on the weather while basking in the golden rays of sunshine, it was fun taking in the Par 3 tournament Wednesday, which allowed for flashing back a half-century in the past.
In 1973, nobody gave Georgian Tommy Aaron much chance of winning the Masters and many, not understanding the rules of golf, blamed him for the scoring error that caused Roberto De Vicenzo to miss out on an opportunity to enter into a playoff with Bob Goalby in 1968.
Lately, Aaron, who is from Gainesville, has not been playing much golf. He was emotionally burdened with the loss of his wife, Jimmye, last year and the effects of neuropathy which makes him uncomfortable on the golf course. With neuropathy compromising his balance, he doesn’t play the Par 3 tournament anymore.
Always accompanied by a dry sense of humor, he cracked. “I’m afraid I might stumble and fall into one of those ponds and they would have to get help to fish me out.”
However, he won’t let his illness keep him down. “I enjoy being out on the golf course,” he said Wednesday following the annual Masters Champions dinner on Tuesday night. “It is always good to be outside.” He was in a reflective mood about his signature moment at the Augusta National Golf Club in 1973, fifty years ago.
“Winning the Masters means more to you as you get older,” Aaron said. “I walk by that big trophy and reflect that my name is etched on it with players like Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. That’s forever, and I am quite humbled to be in that group and enjoy that status. I feel blessed.”
The weather then was about as bad as it has ever been in Augusta, which is why officials are cautious about the ominous forecasts this weekend. Following a 75-minute delay in 1973, the third round was canceled, bringing about a two-tee start on Sunday, with the final round being played on Monday. Back home in Hall County, they called such a deluge a “gulley washer.”
Aaron realized that he was hitting the ball solidly and making putts, but there was a turning point in the third round when he shot 40 on the front and realized he might be heading to a high score that would eliminate him from contention.
Literally, giving himself a pep talk, he “sucked it up,” and made critical putts on the back nine to finish with a 74. That is when he realized that he could win the tournament. Nonetheless, he trailed J. C. Snead by four strokes when the final round began Monday morning.
He played well starting out on the back nine but bogeyed No. 10 and No.11, but he moved through Amen Corner unscathed and birdied the thirteenth. The turning point in the tournament came at No. 15. He hit a decent drive but knew there was a risk in trying to hit his three-wood second shot to the par five green, which is pretty much surrounded by water.
A very conservative player, he disdained all negatives and hit his best three-wood ever with so much on the line. The ball carried to the right of the green about eight feet, leaving him with his second-greatest challenge of the day. Hit his chip too strong, and it likely would roll downhill past the green and into the pond in front. Hit it too weakly, and it likely would trickle downhill to the front of the green, where he would have an impossibly long birdie putt.
He hit a near-perfect chip, the ball hitting the green and coming to rest just past the pin, where he made a five-foot uphill birdie putt to open the door for the Green Jacket to be placed around his shoulders three holes later.
After all these years, he has become comfortable talking about the deVicenzo incident. “He never checked his card,” Aaron said of the Argentine from Buenos Aires. “At No. 17, he hit his approach shot to within two feet, and my second shot was to the back edge. I was working like hell for a three-footer for a four. I made it. I knew he had to make four to win, but he made five and was sorely disappointed. I signed his card and said, ‘Here, Roberto, check your card.’ He signed it and left it lying there. Then, he went to the press tent.
“For some unknown reason, I stayed in there (scorer’s tent) and began looking at his card. I remember his first hole, where he made an eagle and then got around to No. 17 and said, ‘Oh my goodness, he had a 3 there and saw that I had written down 4. I asked an official where Roberto was and he said he had gone to the press tent and asked, ‘What’s the matter?’ I said, ‘There is an error on his card. Maybe you better get him back over here.’
Roberto came in, and I said, to him, ‘I’m sorry but I gave you a 4 on No. 17. I was thinking about your needing a four to win the tournament. Roberto said, ‘Let’s change it.’ I told him, ‘No, we can’t do that because that would be wrong. He would have been disqualified, and I would have too. The official overhearing all this said, ‘No Roberto, you can’t change it now.’
That led to Roberto, now ashen and an emotional wreck, going into the locker room, where he put his head in his hands and exclaimed one of the most unforgettable comments in the history of sports, “Oh what a stupid I am.”
Many writers who did not know the rules of golf were poised to make a villain out of Aaron, but across the room, Jack Nicklaus was changing into street shoes and declared emphatically, “It is not Tommy Aaron’s fault.”
Tommy was labeled a “bridesmaid,” for his runner-up finishes on the tour, something which became a deep-seated irritation. He beat Sam Snead for the Canadian Open title in 1969, but the PGA tour, at that time, did not count the tournament as official.
He finally broke through by winning the 1970 Atlanta Golf Classic, although he had to overcome a two-stroke penalty, which he called on himself, for lifting and cleaning his ball in an unmarked area of one hole.
In 1972, Aaron finished ninth on the PGA Tour money list and had success throughout his career, “finishing in the money.” He has enjoyed a good life in Gainesville, never out of the spotlight but never linked with controversy except for the de Vincenzo incident, which was not his fault.