Augusta’s par three party – Masters 2018
by M. James Ward
Since 1960 Augusta National Golf Club has hosted a par-3 contest on the Wednesday prior to the first round of The Masters. The 9-hole course has provided the stage for both young and old players to compete for a bit of bragging rights. Interestingly, no player has won both the par-3 contest and the 72-hole event in the same year -- although Masters winners have won the par-3 contest at different times.
Prior to the inauguration of the par-3 event, officials at Augusta National had initiated other diversions for golf entertainment -- creating a special event the day prior to the start of the main spectacle. Famed golf sportswriters Grantland Rice and O.B. Keeler had suggested to club founder Bobby Jones that he compete in a one-day, two-man team competition. The reasoning was simple -- Jones was revered by golf fans and having him play provided attending press to file news stories from the location before the actual championship would commence. The first Masters in 1934 was played in March -- not the traditional April time slot -- and thereby provided a diversion for writers returning from spring training baseball sites throughout Florida.
For golf fans the mere witnessed of Jones once again playing was the perfect pre-event kick-off. The special event concept eventually morphed into a Champions' Clinic -- featuring past champions demonstrating their considerable skills to an appreciative audience. A long drive contest was also held in conjunction each year from 1934 until 1959. Long hitting George Bayer -- a 6-foot 5-inch 230-pound native of Bremerton, Wash. -- won several of the events with routine drives in excess of 300 yards. This achievement was even more remarkable given the nature of equipment at that time -- using wound golf balls with persimmon head clubs was nothing short of astounding.
The atmosphere in those early days was more ad hoc enjoyment -- part carnival and golf exhibition -- with far less of the carefully choreographed pageantry which is de rigueur with club officials now. The Masters then was about generating fan attention because early events were not the sellouts that modern day ones have routinely become.
The brainchild for the par-3 event was tournament majordomo Clifford Roberts. Enlisting the services of local architect George Cobb, the 9-hole course was eventually opened for member play in 1958. The holes varied in yardage from 70 to 140. In 1986, architect Tom Fazio built two new holes. The existing par-3 now features the Cobb-created holes of 3 thru 9 as the starting seven holes -- the two new Fazio holes are layout’s final two holes. Par remains 27 with a total length of 1,060 yards.
Sam Snead won the first par-3 contest and would again in 1974. Bayer, the man of prodigious length, also showed a deft touch with the short clubs and won the 1963 event. The par-3 event course record is 19 -- 8 under-par -- set by Jimmy Walker in winning the 2016 event. Over 80 holes-in-one have happened -- the most coming in 2016 with 9 -- one of which came from Walker and from 80-year-old Gary Player - the oldest ever to do so.
The par-3 event is now televised live by ESPN and it's not unusual for some of the players to have their children serve as caddies and march alongside them when playing. In his prime playing days, Jack Nicklaus eschewed the event so as not to take away from his main focus in snatching another green jacket. As those prime years faded into the past, Nicklaus played with his main past competitors -- Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
20-playoffs have occurred over the years and Irishman Padraig Harrington is the only three-time winner. In 2004, Tiger Woods made an ace on hole 9 and ultimately tied for the top spot but chose not to compete in the playoff with Harrington. 13 golfers have won both the par-3 and Masters title in their careers.
In years past, honorary invitees -- those past major championship winners including the US Amateur -- could play in the par-3 event but that has since been stopped with the 2017 event. Now only those officially in the 72-hole event can participate. 2017 also marked the first time the par-3 event was cancelled because of heavy rain and thunderstorms.
The 9-hole layout is immaculately groomed -- comparable in all ways to the main course. In the years to follow, a number of clubs (both relatively young and established) have opted to include some sort of short course -- whether a full 18 or variations thereof -- complimenting their main course(s). Among the leading facilities in America having done so include the 13-hole Bandon Preserve in Oregon and Pinehurst in North Carolina with its most recent opening of a 9-hole layout uniquely called The Cradle.The flavor of the par-3 event at Augusta is a rollicking good time. Where the famous in golf -- both young and old -- share the stage and the galleries enjoy the revelry of the moment. The event signals golf's re-emergence from winter is at hand and that the first major championship of the year is about to be played the next morning.