March 11, 2008

The Appetizer Is Served

Fifty years later, the par-3 course gets its time on TV

Click here to view a photogallery of last year's Par-3 contest.

Click here to view a photogallery of last year's Par-3 contest.

Forget dogwoods and azaleas -- the most colorful spectacle at the Masters each year is the hillside of 30,000 or so fans, jammed shoulder to shoulder, watching the Par-3 Contest on Wednesday afternoon. The pregame warm-up embraces everything that makes the main event so compelling, without any of the stress. It's part Masters in microcosm -- flawless manicuring, tricky greens guarded by taunting ponds and glistening bunkers, cheers and groans echoing through tall pines -- and part carnival.

Players clown around, sign autographs, pose for snapshots. One right-handed golfer, Mac O'Grady, once played all nine holes left-handed, just for kicks. As befitting an abbreviated event, some caddies are abbreviated, players' sons and daughters dressed in miniature white caddie uniforms.

This year, anybody can peer into this fantasy fishbowl because the Wednesday contest -- a tradition since 1960 -- will be televised for the first time, on ESPN from 3-5 p.m. EDT.

It's well-deserved national exposure for the 1,060-yard, par-27 course built 50 years ago this summer. Paul Azinger, for one, has called it "the best golf course in the world."

[#image: /photos/55adafe4add713143b44672b]||||||

The late Clifford Roberts, longtime chairman of the Masters, gave himself credit for the idea of a par-3 course at Augusta National, but in truth Alister Mackenzie, who designed the main course with club co-founder Bobby Jones, suggested a nine-hole "approach-and-putt" course in 1932, only to have it vetoed by Jones, who cited a lack of funds. Mackenzie later routed an 18-hole par-3 course, but Jones vetoed that, too.

Roberts revived the idea in 1958 and chose George W. Cobb, consulting architect to Augusta National during the 1950s and '60s. Cobb was directed to fit nine holes into a boggy 12-acre ravine, and to avoid steep uphill climbs. So he had the ravine dammed, creating a 3.5-acre pond, and routed the holes around it on gentle slopes. (For several years, the hazard was just called the Par 3 Pond, until someone renamed it DeSoto Springs Pond, after the little stream that was dammed.)

The course was constructed that summer and opened that fall. It measured about 1,000 yards, the shortest hole 40 yards, the longest 165. It had the same drainage and grasses as the main course. With bold slopes on small greens, the speed is slightly slower than on the big course.

The Wednesday contest, Roberts' idea, replaced a clinic, long-drive contest and trick-shot exhibition. Sam Snead won the inaugural, at age 47, with a four-under-par 23. (Art Wall Jr. and Gay Brewer share the record of seven-under 20.) Snead won the contest again in 1974, at age 61, and nearly won a third time in 1991, at age 78, but dumped his tee shot into a pond on the first hole of a four-man playoff.

The contest has produced a total of 63 aces so far, including back-to-back 1s by Claude Harmon in 1968 and Toshi Izawa in 2002.

Not everyone has been keen for the contest. Jack Nicklaus declined to compete after his first couple of years, preferring to practice, as did Seve Ballesteros after 1980. (Nicklaus has said he'll play the Par-3 this year.) So the field is filled by "honorary invitees," players not qualified for the Masters but still in attendance. Thus Jerry Pate, who hasn't played in a Masters since 1982, won the contest three years ago.

Much has been made of the "contest curse." No player has ever won the Masters after winning the Par-3 that year. Two players have come close. Ben Crenshaw won the Par-3 in 1987 but missed by a stroke of making the Masters playoff won that year by Larry Mize. Ray Floyd won the contest in 1990 but lost the green jacket in a playoff to Nick Faldo.

Like the main course, the Par-3 has undergone tinkering over the years. Tees were lengthened, increasing the total yardage to 1,060 yards. Bunkers were added, others rebuilt. In 1978, the greens were converted from Bermuda to bent grass, an experiment that proved so successful that the greens on the big course were converted two years later.

The biggest change came in the summer of 1986. To make room for more spectators, two new holes were added on Ike's Pond, the old presidential fishing hole just south of the Par-3 Course. Tom Fazio provided the design services for the project. His holes -- the 120-yard eighth and 135-yard ninth, replaced the old first and second for contest purposes and reduced the total yardage by 15 yards. But the Fazio holes, both to peninsula greens barely above the surface of the pond -- two knees poking above bathwater, as one writer aptly described them -- provide a thrilling finish. The old first and second are maintained and accessible for normal play if members desire an 11-hole round. During the competition, those two holes are roped off.

The telecast will go up against Oprah in a lot of markets, but no matter. Masters chairman Billy Payne has a different demographic in mind. "We think it will demonstrate to kids just how fun golf can be," he says.

For that objective, there is no better venue.