Since 1960 Augusta National 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 at different times.
Prior to the inauguration of the par-3 contest, 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 and thereby provided a diversion for writers returning from spring training baseball sites throughout Florida.
For golf fans the mere witnessing of Jones once again playing was the perfect pre-event-kickoff. 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. Given the nature of equipment at that time, the wherewithal to consistently hit limited wound golf balls with persimmon head clubs was astounding.
The atmosphere in those early days was more ad hoc enjoyment and less of the carefully choreographed presentations that are 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 par-3 course was eventually opened for member play in 1958. The holes varied in yardage from 70 to 140 yards. 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 the final two holes played. Par is obviously 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 20—shared by Art Wall Jr. and Gay Brewer.
The par-3 event is now televised 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 playing the event so as not to take away from his main focus for snatching a green jacket. As those prime years faded into the past, Nicklaus has played the event with his main past competitors—Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
A total of 70 holes-in-one have been recorded in the contest’s history, including a record five in 2002. Toshi Izawa made consecutive aces that year on Nos. 5 and 6 and Tiger Woods made an ace in 2004 on hole 9 and ultimately tied for the top spot but chose not to compete in the playoff. The contest has been decided by sudden-death playoff 18 times, and 13 golfers have won both the Par-3 and the Masters in their careers. Padraig Harrington of Ireland has won the most titles—2003, 2004 and 2012—though two wins shared in ‘03 and ‘12 were because of poor weather, which abbreviated the proceedings.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.