April 7, 2009

Short But Sweet

The annual Par 3 Contest has none of the gravitas of the tournament that follows. As Dave Kindred says, that's what makes it special

As Greg Norman and wife Chris Evert have learned, smiles at the Par 3 matter more than score.

As Greg Norman and wife Chris Evert have learned, smiles at the Par 3 matter more than score.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Along Magnolia Lane, Augusta National Golf Club and God have conspired to create nine little golf holes at 1,060 yards that cross DeSoto Springs Pond and Ike's Pond (DeSoto being an old car or an older explorer or somebody, Ike being a general, president, and the club's most famous player until deposed by a king, Arnold Daniel Palmer). On Wednesday of every Masters week, the gorgeous nine is the site of big-time golf's smilingest frolic, the Par 3 Contest, which no one wants to win because winning means you were trying too hard and no winner in 49 years has ever gone to the other side of the clubhouse and won the Masters.

The longest hole is 140 yards, the shortest 70. Bring your wedges and a putter. No one in the Masters field has to play, everybody can. Tiger sat it out. Greg Norman's caddy was Chris Evert, a good deal if you can arrange it. Tom Watson's caddy was the son of a billionaire, who won the spot at a charity auction with a bid of $50,000. For his part, King Arnold rounded up a couple other old folks, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, for an hour's walk into their past.

"Hate to say it," said a man who truly sounded as if he hated to say it, a hint of painful self-recognition in his voice, "but Arnie looks old." The man watched Palmer, hunched and limping, carry himself from the practice range to the little course, the king dressed in greys, his hair snow white, his left knee not working as smoothly as the right, probably nothing working at age 79 the way it did when he first won here, 28 years old, midway through Ike's second term.

Still, there he was, smiling in the sunlight.

And why not?

"This is like walking through the gates of heaven," said George Belcher Jr., himself 28 year old, a golf fan up from Houston to Augusta National for the first time. He stood near the clubhouse with his father and his uncle, John. They were dressed identically. They wore green knickers with sweaters and stockings in green-and-white diamond patterns. Their shoes were green and white. Their hats were green. They seemed to have dropped in from the 1920s. These are not normal people. "Every day of my life," said John Belcher, whose white beard was a foot long and a foot wide, "I wear red, white, and blue."

Ooookay. So why all green this day?

"Here," he said, "I dressed properly."

At Augusta National, as you may know, even the pimento cheese sandwiches wear green, wrapped in green translucent paper. Maybe Ireland in the spring is as beautifully green as Augusta's little jewel of a par-3 course.

But in all of Ireland there can be no more beautiful a tee shot than that on this day at the fourth hole across DeSoto's pond. Shortly after 1 p.m. on a cloudless, brilliant afternoon, the pond's waters, touched by a soft breeze, did their diamond's-sparkling dance. The fourth tee was in the shade of 50-foot tall loblolly pines. From there last year's Masters winner, Trevor Immelman, sent a shot to a green on a ledge that dared anyone to miss a foot short, the result being a gift to Mr. DeSoto, whoever he was.

I'm not sure where Immelman's shot wound up, nor does it matter, because by then I cared more about his son, Jacob, 2 years old, dressed in a caddy's outfit. The Par 3 Contest has evolved into a Kindergarten Masters. Players bring their children as caddies, sometimes their grandchildren. Augusta National now has roped off sections for children under 16 to get close-up views of the players, such as at the seventh hole where Gregory Gionfriddo, 11, of Memphis, called out to Paul Azinger, "Mr. Azinger, you ever make a hole-in-one?"

"Made one last year," Azinger said. "You here for it?"

"No, sir."

"I'm going to make another one, right now."

"OK!"

"Hey," Azinger said, "now don't blink."

Promises of magic were the order of the day, mostly delivered in darling tableaus with kids shorter than the putters trying to lug little golf bags around the place. Jacob Immelman spent most of the day with his mother, Carmenita, but the eighth hole he wound up in the Masters champion's arms. And at the ninth, he wriggled loose on the green in time to tap in daddy's last putt. It was the boy's first trip to this magic place. And Carmenita Immelman said, "Having Jacob here makes this day just extra-special." At 2, Jacob Immelman is 71 years the junior of Gary Player, who will play in his 52nd and final Masters this week. Which is not to say Player has made his final visit to Augusta. As he came off the ninth green on this afternoon, he said he absolutely will be back. He wants to play the Par 3 forever.