Ben Crenshaw remembers the time he led the Par-3 Contest at Augusta National Golf Club in 1987.
“What are you doing, son?” his father, Charlie, asked him before the final hole. “Don’t you know no one has ever won the par-3 tournament and then gone on to win the big tournament?”
Just east of the golf course is a 25-acre glen that in a previous lifetime entertained only fishermen. In 1958, architect George W. Cobb, at the urging of Augusta National Golf Club chairman Clifford Roberts, crafted a 1,060-yard, nine-hole course that encircles two ponds in this picturesque corner of the property. The majority of holes are 130 yards or less in length. Masters participants and non-competing past champions are invited to compete for prizes of crystal instead of money, and fans can get close to their favourites. It’s an easy-going time, tinged by that one oddity that no winner has pulled off the double of going on to win the tournament proper.
Crenshaw, a golf historian, was fully aware. The Par-3 tradition began in 1960, when Sam Snead claimed the title, and takes place today, the day before the tournament’s first round. As sure as the azaleas bloom each spring around DeSoto Springs Pond and Ike’s Pond it is fact that Crenshaw loves everything about the Masters and wanted to add his name to the record book.
“Hit it in the water,” his father commanded.
Crenshaw didn’t listen. He doesn’t believe in the Masters jinx, though others, including Tiger Woods, most certainly do. Joe Durant, aware he was leading the Par-3 in 1999, intended to pitch his shot into the water on the last hole. Instead, the ball went into the hole and he won. Durant’s shot not withstanding, it’s the rare occasion when the best in the game try not to win.
“I’ve been six under through 8, and for some reason the wind came up and I hit two balls in the water on 9,” Woods recounted in 2015, the last time he played here, cracking a wide smile. “Just so happened to be that way, you know, just one of those weird things.
“No one’s ever done it. I don’t want to prove it wrong, so I just have a good time.”
In 2004, Woods hit a wedge shot eight feet beyond the 135-yard hole, over Ike’s Pond, and spun it into the cup for a hole-in-one for one of the 94 aces in contest history. Among the nine in 2016, Gary Player became the oldest to make an ace at 80 years old. And Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler had back-to-back holes-in-one. Jimmy Walker also set the course record at 8-under 19 in 2016.
Woods’s ace helped him finish in a three-way tie for first place at 4 under par in 2004, but was a no-show for the play-off, claiming “a prior engagement,” according to the official Masters release. Pádraig Harrington took home the top prize, winning with a 2½-foot birdie putt on the third play-off hole over Eduardo Romero. Woods skipped the Par-3 contest from that year until 2015.
“It’s changed over the years,” Woods said in 2008. “Used to be, I thought it was a lot of fun to play, but now it is a little bit distracting to get ready and be ready for the tournament.”
Woods has changed his tune.
In 2015, his daughter, Samantha, and son, Charlie, served as his caddies.
“It’s nice to be able to share these things with my family and it just means the world to me,” Woods said.
The Par-3 Contest is by no means strictly a prelude. No less than Arnold Palmer, the 1967 winner on Wednesday, called it an important part of the tournament. Indeed, the winner receives a crystal bowl and prizes are awarded for closest-to-the-pin honours on each hole. But the casual competition affords players the chance to allow their families and friends a walk inside the ropes. Parents and relatives and plenty of kids will join Charlie and Samantha Woods in donning small, white jumpsuits. Rory McIlroy has had Mullingar man Niall Horan of the band One Direction by his side.
The Par-3 Contest is a time for good cheer before the serious business of trying to win the season’s first major. Phil Mickelson has been known to hits balls right-handed. One year, Mac O’Grady teed off left-handed and hit putts right-handed. Fuzzy Zoeller likes to draft a youngster from the gallery to hit a shot or take a putt. But there is at least one competitor who would like to prove there is no jinx: Mickelson.
“I would love to win that Par3 Tournament and go on to try to compete and be the first person to win them both,” Mickelson said.
“But I’m not sure that I’ll have a chance to give myself the best opportunity to compete and be in contention in the Masters. I’m not sure that’s going to be part of the schedule, given the potential for weather.”
Inclement weather cancelled the 2017 Par-3 Contest. If the weather cooperates, someone will join Harrington, Crenshaw, Durant and other winners in having a chance to end the Par-3 Contest jinx.
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