Gary Player just decided to sit down on the grass, like a patron. To his left was the Butler Cabin, where he’d been for the past 30 minutes or so, and there, down the gentle slope, he could see the shimmering waters and blooming azaleas of the Par 3 course.
“It’s paradise over there,” Player said as he leaned back on his elbows. “It’s always been paradise. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t play it. I’m still surprised some of the guys don’t.”
Player, of course, owns three Masters titles, and his record 52 Tournament appearances outlasted Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and probably a few dogwoods. But as he looked through that prism and, at 77, reflected on what happens Wednesday of Masters Week at Augusta National, Player embodied what the Tournament intended to be when it began in 1934.
Player has 22 grandchildren in all. After Wednesday, 21 of them will have caddied for him in the Par 3 Contest.
“Only one left,” Player said.
The past again morphs with the present at Augusta National. Defending champion Bubba Watson plans to have his son, Caleb, with him for the Par 3 Contest; Rory McIlroy, 23, plans to share the experience with his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
Player was there in the beginning, 1960, after the Par 3 Contest replaced a long-drive contest and clinics staged at the original practice facility located between 9th and 18th holes. What began as a continuation of a friendly Masters atmosphere has become a tradition, an event now covered live by ESPN as players unwind on the eve of the Tournament.
“It just got better and better and gradually got bigger and bigger,” Player said.
Before he ever qualified for the Masters, Paul Azinger recalled watching a videotape recapping the 1986 Tournament and Nicklaus’ sixth title, which began with shots of that year’s Par 3 Contest.
“Gary Player made one, Nick Price made one – they were all spectacular holes in one. And the noise that came from that was incredible,” Azinger said. “Because of that video, I couldn’t wait to go play the Masters and go see the Par 3 course. Before that, I didn’t even know the course existed.”
Azinger said he missed maybe two Par 3 Contests, and both his children would eventually caddie for him.
“All the rules are strong here, but yet they still make that effort to make it enjoyable,” Azinger said. “You’re allowed to skip the ball over the lake at No. 16, you’re allowed to have your children caddie in the Par 3. Even with all the rules, they still really let you have fun here.”
Charles Coody, the 1971 Masters champion, has returned to play the Par 3 Contest with his twin grandsons on the bag. He was an amateur when he first arrived at Augusta National in 1963, and he recalled most of the field playing the short course on Wednesdays.
“Prior to the guys bringing their kids or grandkids, it was a little bit more serious type of event,” Coody said. “People were out there trying to shoot a good score, and it wasn’t as loose.”
Coody said a turning point came when a group of players that included Hubert Green and Fuzzy Zoeller lined up across the tee box and hit their shots in unison.
“People really got into that, they thought that was great and really enjoyed it,” Coody said.
He brought his oldest grandson to caddie at age 7, and Coody remembered being among the first group of players who brought family members inside the ropes.
“It’s just kind of grown from there,” he said. “The Club didn’t say yes, but they didn’t say no. The Club itself is encouraging a lot of those type of things now.”
The Par 3 course was designed in 1958 by architect George Cobb and then-Club Chairman Clifford Roberts. It’s a par 27, 1,060-yard layout around the waters of DeSoto Springs Pond and Ike’s Pond, named for president Dwight D. Eisenhower. The longest hole is the 140-yard sixth; the shortest is the 70-yard No. 2.
The course later played an important role for one of the most significant changes to Augusta National. In 1978, the greens on the Par 3 course were converted to the speedier bentgrass greens. Two years later, the famed greens on the big course switched from bermudagrass to bentgrass.
The course also carries a mystique that baffles players and patrons; nobody has won the Par 3 Contest and the Masters in the same year. On the flip side, 11 Masters champions have won the annual event played Wednesday afternoon before the Tournament. Sam Snead won that first contest, and he did it again in 1974 – 20 years after his third and last Masters victory.
Sandy Lyle is the only other two-time winner, and he added an exclamation point with back-to-back victories in 1997 and ’98. Of course, that also made Lyle, the 1988 Masters champ, the only champion to win more Par 3 Contests than Green Jackets.
Player has never won the Par 3 Contest, but he recalls finishing second a few times. One of his fondest memories was a few years ago with his grandchild as caddie while being paired with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. After Player made par on the first two holes, he sank a long putt for birdie at No. 3, and his caddie proudly came over to him.
“He said, ‘Yes, Grandad, well done! Now off with the rust and on with the paint,’” Player said.
Player smiles at recalling the moment, relaxed and reflective as he rested on the grass.
“That’s the first time I ever heard anybody say that,” Player said. “And I said to Jack, ‘Did you hear that? Isn’t that great? Did you hear that?’”