Sports Desk: Georgia Masters

Loran Smith

Following Super Bowl LIII, the chill of winter is just right for determining the collegiate basketball champion, but there is nothing like the coming of spring and the playing of the Masters Tournament. That golf championship reminds us of the renewal of life and connects us with the growing season accompanied by blooms, bare feet, short sleeves, mimosas and an enrichment of spirits the first full week of April.

The playing of the Masters ordains that we take time to smell the roses. The azaleas. And the dogwoods. Lurking in the background, here and there, are honeysuckle, wisteria and magnolia. It would be difficult to imagine that the Garden of Eden could have been more remarkably appealing and emotionally inspiring than Augusta National Golf Club in spring.

While they may not be the most revered, three Georgia natives have won the Masters in that floral splendor: Claude Harmon of Savannah, Tommy Aaron of Gainesville and Larry Mize (born and raised in Augusta, making him the homegrown champion, now a resident of Columbus).

The aforementioned threesome did not achieve a major championship victory other than at Augusta. On the PGA Tour, they each experienced modest success. They, however, enjoyed one of the highest moments in sports when the golf gods smiled on them that one week in Augusta: Harmon in 1948, Aaron in 1973 and Mize in 1987.

Over the years, until he died in 1989 at age 73, Harmon was a fixture on the grounds of Augusta National, often in the company of his good friend Masters champion Ben Hogan. Regarded as one of golf’s most insightful teachers, Harmon’s sons Butch, Craig and Bill followed in his footsteps, Butch having the highest profile among the brothers.

Harmon had one of the best working routines imaginable – the head pro at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., in spring and summer and Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., in winter. Harmon was the only teaching professional to win the Masters.

Aaron, an all-around athlete, mainly played golf because his father was the pro at the Chattahoochee Golf Club. Very few of his friends played the game. He took to golf early on, developing a repeatable swing that enhanced paydays on the pro tour.

For Aaron it was a lonely life, often hitchhiking to amateur tournaments across the state and in the south. He developed a quiet passion for the game that brought him success on the PGA tour, if not abundant trophies. He won nine times professionally but only three times on the PGA tour. His first official tour victory came at the Atlanta Classic at Atlanta Country Club in 1970.

He once defeated super agent Mark McCormack in the Georgia State Open, playing barefoot. When Aaron got to the Columbus tournament, his new shoes hurt his feet too badly to wear them. Later, when McCormack became his agent, he and McCormack enjoyed many laughs about that tournament.

One of Aaron’s most interesting stories came when IMG, McCormack’s agency, arranged for him to play in a tournament hosted by King Hassan II of Morocco. Aaron won $25,000. He was escorted to a temporary bank and was paid in dollars. Cold cash. He put the money in his briefcase and headed home, never letting his briefcase rest more than arms-length away. “I think it might have been amusing to some passengers on the flight that I always took my briefcase to the bathroom,” Tommy says.

In 1987, Mize may have hit the most sensational shot at Augusta since Gene Sarazen’s famous double-eagle at the 15th hole propelled him to a green jacket in 1935. Sarazen’s was “the shot heard around the world.” Mize, who won three additional times on the PGA Tour, finished in a tie with Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman late Sunday.

Ballesteros was eliminated on the first extra hole, leaving Mize as the decided underdog at that point. Norman was on the edge of the green with a makeable birdie putt. When Mize’s approach on No. 11 went wide right and ended up 140 feet from the hole, nobody gave him a chance to win the tournament where he had worked scoreboards as a teenager.

Mize chose a sand wedge, hitting the ball onto the green where it bounced a couple of times and hit the pin as squarely as possible. The ball dropped into the cup, and this son of Augusta was the Masters champion.

The shot was a reminder that high drama more often than not is predictable late Sunday afternoon at the Masters. Don’t be surprised when there is a miracle.

Categories: Downtime, Sports Desk