Four former Georgia high school golfers in field at The Masters

Jason Getz /

Is there any place better in the world than Augusta National Golf Club in early April?

No. Not really.

Well, maybe.

But for golfers, and especially high school golfers from Georgia, no.

As kids practicing on the putting green growing up, it was likely The Masters which each of these players imagined they had ‘won’ after making the 15-foot putt on their 50th try while mimicking the commentary of Jim Nantz.

“It’s tracking, he might have done it,” they said, mimicking Nantz. “It’s IN! What a putt!”

We’ve all been there.

Two former Georgia high school golfers have turned that dream into reality with a Masters victory. There are four this year – Macon’s Russell Henley (Stratford Academy), Etowah alum Chris Kirk, Savannah’s Brian Harman (Savannah Christian) and Sepp Straka (Lowndes) – that will try to realize those dreams.

The first former Georgia high school golfer to win the tournament was Gainesville’s Tommy Aaron, who won the 1973 Masters. The second was Augusta-native Lawrence Hogan ‘Larry’ Mize, who retired from Masters competition after last year’s appearance. For Mize, who won the 1987 tournament, March is usually a month spent yearning for his drive down Magnolia Lane with eyes on competing.

“It’s bittersweet this time of year, not preparing for the tournament,” he said.

Mize was 15 years old when Aaron won the 1973 Masters, and the echoes from the course probably could be heard from the Mize’s family home just down Washington Road from the National. Mize grew up on the same street as Augusta National, and there was not much doubt that golf was in his future. The Augusta native learned the game using cut-down clubs given to him by his father, Charles.

“It’s always been Larry’s love,” the elder Mize told the Chicago Tribune in an April 14, 1987 article, two days after his son’s victory in the 1987 tournament. “We were fortunate that everywhere we moved I had a country club membership with my job and Larry could spend time on the golf course. I never encouraged him to try for the PGA Tour. That had to come from him. After he was about 16-to-17 years old, I knew golf would be his career.”

Mize grew into a star golfer at Augusta Prep and even worked the scoreboard on the third hole during the tournament as a teenager. His growth around the game earned him a spot on the Georgia Tech golf team following high school. In Atlanta, he further honed his skills at Augusta National founder Bobby Jones’ alma mater before turning professional in 1980.

Mize was successful throughout his career, finishing in the top 125 on the money list each year from 1982-2001, a testament to his consistency. His first victory came in his third year on tour at the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic (St. Jude Classic today) in 1983, and entering the 1987 Masters, he was nursing an 0-1 playoff record after falling to Greg Norman on the sixth extra hole in the 1986 Kemper Open at Congressional Country Club.

He would have his chance at revenge.

Entering the 1987 Masters, the aura of Jack’s back-nine 30 in 1986 was still thick in the air. The word around the world was that nothing could top the excitement of 1986. And, for most of the world, they were right. But for the 60,000-strong army town surrounding the National, its native son was the sole focus.

“The Masters is our season,” long-time Augusta resident Michael Cohen told the Chicago Tribune over breakfast at the Hickory House restaurant just down Washington from Augusta National. “I know Larry`s family and a little bit about him, and that makes this year extra special.”

Mize fired a 70 in the opening round, placing him solo-second behind John Cook’s 3-under 69. A six-player bunch — Bernhard Langer, Corey Pavin, Calvin Peete, Payne Stewart, Curtis Strange and Tom Watson — tied at 1-under. Aaron, the 1973 champ, shot an even-par 72 to tie for ninth.

Strange took the 36-hole lead at 3 under par following a second-round 70. Mize paced himself to an even-par 72 to remain at 2-under and a tie for second with Cook, Pavin and Roger Maltbie. In the third round, Mize again shot even and fell back as the field charged ahead. His 2-under total tied him for fifth entering the final round.

Mize took a two-shot lead over Greg Norman in the final round following a birdie on the par-5 13th hole before dropping a shot each on holes 14 and 15. A birdie on the formidable 18th hole put him, as the third wheel, in a playoff with Spain’s Seve Ballesteros and Norman.

“The excitement of course will be Ballesteros and Norman,” said Peter Alliss in the television broadcast, with a lengthened pause before adding, “…joined by Larry Mize at 3-under par for a sudden-death playoff.”

Mize’s tee shot on the first playoff hole careened down the sloping fairway on No. 10 and finished on the left side with a perfect lie and view of the green.

“That was a very composed swing,” Alliss said following Mize’s drive. “It’s scampering down, way down, that’s the perfect spot.”

Norman fired first, placing his ball on the back fringe just past the flag. Ballesteros’ approach rolled through the green on the right side and finished just off the back of the fringe. Mize, whose drive finished 25 yards ahead of his competitors, placed his approach just feet below the pin, crucial on the slippery greens at Augusta.

Ballesteros failed to convert his par attempt, and for the second year in a row, he saw the Masters slide from his grasp. Norman and Mize would make par and head to No. 11 and the opening hole of Amen Corner.

Both players hit the fairway on No. 11, and Mize struck his approach shot first.

“Oh, nice shot,” Mize said in disgust as he watched his ball slide off the club face and bound to the right-hand side of the green, forcing a 140-plus-foot downhill chip as Norman was eyeing a birdie putt from the right edge of the green.

“Not impossible to get down in two,” Alliss said of Mize’s chip. “But, my word, he’s left himself a very tricky chip and that was a real nervy one. This really is a testy one. What to do? What to do?”

Mize did what he had to and struck the ball perfectly, allowing a touch of backspin to grab the rough in the first few bounces before the ball found the surface of the green and bounded toward the cup, striking the flagstick and dropping in.

“And they say the meek should inherit the earth,” Alliss uttered, after a slight chuckle. “Well, well, well. Bob Tway did it to Greg Norman. Greg Norman must be feeling rather sick in the tummy. When he hit it, I thought he might have nipped it a bit thin and caught it a bit sharp and it was going to gallop on, but that’s destiny, isn’t it? That’s fate.”

Norman, who had to wait for the cheers from the crowd to die down, failed to convert his putt, and the Augusta native earned his place in golf history. From working the scoreboard to winning the tournament, Mize summed up his victory afterward.

“This is a special place,” Mize said in Butler Cabin following his victory. “I was born and raised here. The crowds were great. I’ve got to thank the good Lord for everything. I just hit a good shot on 11 and with a little bit of luck I guess it was my turn to win.”

Almost immediately, people in the streets of Augusta joined in celebration. A Georgia boy had won again.

“They said 1986 would be hard to top,” Cohen said. “But I think they did it as far as Augusta is concerned.”

Aaron, who was inducted into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame in 1989, described himself as a self-taught golfer. His father did not play the game often, and when the family moved to Gainesville, no one golfed. He honed his skills on a dusty, poorly conditioned 9-hole course that’s now at the bottom of Lake Lanier. As a multi-sport athlete, Aaron also played football and basketball in high school.

At Gainesville, Aaron helped lead the Red Elephants to the 1955 Class A golf title soon after his quarterfinal appearance in the 1954 U.S. Junior Championship. His individual amateur career was highlighted by a finals appearance in the 1958 U.S. Amateur at Olympic Club in San Francisco. His performance led to his selection to the 1959 Walker Cup team (amateur Ryder Cup) with Jack Nicklaus, Deane Beman, Billy Joe Patton and Charlie Coe.

Of the four former high school golfers from Georgia teeing it up in the upcoming tournament, Harman, the current Open champion, highlights the group. The Open victory at Royal Liverpool at Hoylake, England last year marked the first major championship victory for the left-hander from Savannah.

Henley, who finished fourth in last year’s tournament, played college golf at UGA and won the 2010 Haskins award, the equivalent of golf’s Heisman trophy. He’s a four-time winner on the PGA Tour and most recently won the 2022 World Wide Technology Championship, edging Harman by four strokes.

Straka, a Lowndes alum, was born in Vienna, Austria but moved to Valdosta when he was 14. He and his twin brother Sam both played at the University of Georgia. Straka might have attended UGA and a South Georgia high school, but he was a member of the victorious European Ryder Cup team last season. He has two PGA Tour wins including the 2023 John Deere Classic.

Kirk was born in Knoxville, Tennessee but was raised in Woodstock. He helped lead Etowah to a Class 4A state championship in 2002. He’s won six times on the PGA Tour including The Honda Classic last season and The Sentry in January.

The Masters Tournament begins April 11 and will be broadcast on CBS. To join in the Score Atlanta Masters Fantasy League to keep up with your favorite picks, follow the link.

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