AUGUSTA, Ga. — It is not a big place, nestled between the left side of the clubhouse, the 10 cabins on the ground and Washington Road. Weighs in just over 1,000 yards, feels even smaller thanks to the two ponds that serve as its epicenter and the gigantic Georgia pines providing a canopy.
But—save your Amen Corner and 15th/16th homilies for someone else—it's the best place to find peace and serenity at Augusta National during Masters week. And despite its proximity to arguably the most famous 18 holes in the sport, it's a place former PGA champ Paul Azinger called "the best golf course in the world."
The Par 3 Course was built in 1958, but it's creation began three decades before. The club's co-founder Cliff Roberts told the Olmsted Brothers, the firm charged with Augusta National's landscaping, that an "approach and putt" course should be constructed alongside the main layout, which was still two years away from opening. Designs were drawn up by Alister MacKenzie, who initially turned in plans for a 500-yard course but ultimately presented a blueprint for an 18-hole track sprawling over 2,400 yards. MacKenzie wanted to utilize each green and tee box twice, with the holes skirting a small pond.
However, Augusta National's other club founder, Bobby Jones, did not reciprocate the excitement shared by Roberts and MacKenzie—Jones felt the then-cash-strapped club (how far things have come) had other projects to on the priority list—putting the kibosh on the plans. Jones said it could be revisited in the future.
That future came 25 years later, more than 20 years after MacKenzie's death. The idea was revived, this time under the direction of architect George W. Cobb, one that met Jones' liking. "I agree completely that the construction of this golf course will be an important contribution to the beauty of the place," Jones wrote to Roberts. "The par three would give us a pretty complete golfing layout."
Cobb's design mirrored some of MacKenzie’s elements, but the small pond—now named DeSoto Springs Pond, for the Spanish explorer believed to have traveled through the property in the 16th century—had been enlarged, forcing Cobb to tinker with the plans. With a nudge from Roberts, Cobb made sure the pond was very much in play, creating a more alluring backdrop to the course. (In 1987, the routing was slightly reconfigured, with two additional holes over Ike’s Pond installed.) The greens are small, the roll as fast and true as the main course.
While Roberts' plan faced initial pushback from membership, the course opened in the fall of '58 to rave reviews. The course was such a hit that it was incorporated into the Masters Tournament, with the inaugural Par 3 Contest taking place in 1960, won by Sam Sneed.
"Due to the indicated popularity of this new type of preliminary event with the patrons and players, it is likely that it will be staged again next year on the day preceding the first round of the Masters Tournament," Roberts told the Augusta Chronicle.
In the years since, Roberts' words have proven true, as the Par 3 Contest has become of the more popular traditions during tournament week. It's also transformed into something resembling a "family day" for the players, many allowing friends or family to serve as their caddies (or in some instances, their proxy on the ninth tee box). Retired legends get an annual victory lap, producing a nostalgic ambience to the proceedings.
Also aiding that sentiment: the scenery. Roberts' aspiration of a beautiful panorama gives the Par 3 its oomph. The green basin, dotted with trees, shrubs, flowers, pine straw, sand and water is nature incarnate, prettier than any picture Bob Ross painted. When dotted with the patrons, most dressed in Easter pastels, it's a confluence of color so spectacular they can't be replicated on a palette. Even by the aesthetic standards of Augusta National, it is stunning.
Yes, there is competition. Jimmy Walker owns the course record with an eight-under 19 in 2016, and 94 holes-in-one have been recorded in play. The contest routinely produces its share of highlights across the spectrum: In 2018, Jack Nicklaus' grandson recorded an ace, producing one of the loudest roars of the week, while Tony Finau, in celebration of his eagle, severely injured his ankle to the point that his Masters participation was in jeopardy.
Nevertheless, the overall atmosphere is one of relaxation, of equanimity.
"It's not as serious as you think it is," former Masters champ Mike Weir once said. "The tournament is obviously a major championship and one of the greatest tournaments we have, but there is a family atmosphere a little bit there, which I think is great."
The real show at Augusta begins on Thursday, and all the thrills and angst and theater inherent to it. But that madness awaits another day. On Wednesday afternoon, the Masters, and all that are involved, will enjoy a nice and needed deep breath. They will do it on the best place possible.