The Masters Tournament always ends with the presentation of the Green Jacket. It traditionally begins with events dedicated to fun.
The popular Par 3 Contest, with friends, children, relatives and celebrities serving as caddies and an international audience watching on ESPN, dates back to 1960 when the course opened on the northeastern corner of the Augusta National Golf Club property. But this type of event had a deep history before that.
When the Club was formed in the early 1930s, Founder Clifford Roberts sent letters to the members that included the mention of building a short course on the grounds. Course architect Alister MacKenzie, with Roberts’ encouragement, prepared drawings in the early 1930s for an 18-hole short course at the current location. However, funding to build the additional course was set aside to focus on refining what has been called “the big course.” The revised site plan listed the area “Reserved for Park.”
Even without the short course, casual competition was a means to draw interest early in Tournament week and allow participants to have a bit of fun before the serious stuff began, especially with Bobby Jones as the featured participant. At the first Tournament in 1934, the schedule called for a “2-Ball Foursomes” competition on Wednesday before the 72-hole event began the following day. Jones and amateur Ross Somerville comprised one of 30 teams that went head to head. An Approach and Putt contest was slated for Thursday before the first round. Friday’s second round was preceded by an Iron Contest and Saturday’s third round began with a Driving Contest, drawing patrons to the grounds in the morning.
With the original practice facility located between the ninth and 18th holes, it was a natural to hold a gathering in one central location. The exhibitions included iron accuracy contests where players hit to greens at various distances on the practice area, a long-drive contest that featured wins by long-hitters such as Mike Souchak and George Bayer, as well as Billy Joe Patton and Ben Hogan, and a clinic featuring former champions to explain the intricacies of the game.
The pride of capturing some kind of prize in these contests was exemplified by Bill Campbell, an 18-time Masters participant as a lifelong amateur. The West Virginian was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame, became the first person to head both the United States Golf Association and the R&A and captured the 1964 U.S. Amateur. He also served in World War II, the West Virginia House of Delegates and oversaw a renowned insurance business.
Yet, Campbell may have been proudest of his second Masters start in 1951, when he watched his West Virginia mentor Sam Snead wallop a drive 325 yards down the hill toward the second green in the long-drive contest. The 27-year-old Campbell was drafted for one last try to top the defending Masters champion. Campbell poked a first-place drive of 328 yards and was questioned by Snead about how he won. Campbell revealed that he borrowed one of Snead’s backup drivers in West Virginia before coming to Augusta.
The reward was a shiny, gold money clip with the Masters logo element, a piece he carried in his pocket for the remainder of his life.
“I can pull this out and really remember the occasion like it was yesterday,” Campbell said in 2011, two years before his death at age 90. “It was a fluke, a funny fluke, but one moment at Augusta that I really, really value. I’ve got this money clip to prove I beat Sam at least once.”
The exhibitions sometimes expanded to elsewhere on the course. When Sarazen Bridge on the 15th hole was dedicated prior to the 1955 Tournament, each player was invited to try to duplicate the double eagle that Gene Sarazen made 20 years prior, with the player coming closest receiving a souvenir award. Roberts and Jones even asked in a memo for players to “Please bring your own clubs.” In 1958, when the Hogan and Nelson bridges were dedicated at Amen Corner, players were invited to play the 12th and 13th holes for the lowest cumulative score.
Even with the success of these contests, Roberts resurfaced building the Par 3 course in the 1950s. He hired course architect George Cobb in 1958 to co-design the short course, which plays over and around DeSoto Springs Pond and Ike’s Pond. The course includes 11 holes, even though only nine are used for the competition, ending with the current eighth and ninth holes over Ike’s Pond that were added in 1987.
The Par 3 course has even served as a laboratory. The greens were converted from bermudagrass to bentgrass in the late 1970s, and the success led to a conversion to bent on the regular course in 1980.
Last year summed up the history of the Par 3 Contest and other pre-Tournament events perfectly. Jack Nicklaus, the six-time Masters champion, made a hole-in-one on the fourth hole at age 75.
“I’ve never had a hole-in-one at Augusta, the Par 3 course or the big course,” Nicklaus said. “I enjoyed it. We had an incredible amount of fun.”