AUGUSTA, Ga. - For one day, at least, there exists a single pitch of grass that belies the perfectly manicured greens at Augusta National. On the day before the Masters begins, the practice putting green abutting the first tee of the Par 3 course transforms into a proverbial watering hole, an outdoor green room for what has become golf's greatest reality show: the annual Par-3 Contest.
Caleb Watson crawled along the bentgrass while his father, Bubba, tread slowly behind, trying to stomp out of the tracks left by his infant son's dragging knees. Trevor Immelman laughed along with the gallery as his daughter, Mya Belinda, scurried around in her sequined green Toms, exclaiming, "I'll put the ball in the hole!" The two-year-old would pick up a ball, run to a hole and slam it down so hard that the ball jumped high out of the cup, causing her to pirouette and chase after it again. By Wednesday night, the green was worn, collecting another year of tales of golf past and present.
It's here where tradition meets today, where a 14-year-old wunderkind from China, Guan Tianglang, can walk nine holes with three-time Masters champ, Nick Faldo. Where Rory McIlroy shakes Jack Nicklaus's hand and then shows the old legend his putting stroke. It's where the generations come together -- where fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, old stars, new stars, tomorrow's stars share the common experience.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't love it," says 23-time Tour winner Hubert Green. "And I'm [a] big enough [deal] that I could say no."
The 66-year-old Par 3 Contest regular is, of course, joking. There are very few things in golf that are bigger than the Masters. But Green was, in a way, a Par-3 pioneer. Back in the late '70s, he and contemporaries like Fuzzy Zoeller lightened the short-course tournament. For some 15 years, they'd line up on the tee box and take swings in unison. Green remembers once teeing off amid the haze of a gag smokeball. Over time, the Par-3 became a respite from the intensity and austerity of the Masters.
It went from an event for the players to an event for the people. Families, friends and fans flocked, and since ESPN began televising the event in 2008, it has turned into midweek must-see TV. Scenes of kids sporting white coveralls, taking putts for their dads or granddads; proud mothers standing by smiling while snapping photos of their sons signing autographs for fans. It seems at times unbearably cute. The only way to make it all more adorable would be introducing a puppy at every hole.
But it attracts fans because it gives a glimpse into the players' lives, showing them interacting with their families, as if they were chipping shots in their backyard. As Louis Oosthuizen readied on the first tee, he settled into his stance by shifting his weight side to side. From just behind the ropes facing him, his daughter mimicked her father's moves, shimmying side to side. Sure, it's not Kim Kardashian confessing pregnancy in her car, but it's a small window into these professionals' lives. And that it comes at a tournament, a course, most famous for its exclusivity and privacy perhaps makes the event even more beloved.
Altogether, the Par-3 has become great TV. It's a low-stake couple of hours where personality puts on a good show-and who knows what will happen out there. Nick Watney could hole out from the tee box on No. 9. Better yet, 61-year-old Ben Crenshaw, about to embark in his 42nd Masters, could get a hole-in-one in what may be his last tour of Augusta.
In the end, 29-year-old rookie lefty Ted Potter, Jr., won the event, defeating Matt Kuchar and Phil Mickelson in a two-hole playoff. Ernie Els and Watney also finished tied for the lead after nine, at -4, but opted not to go for the crystal bowl. Considering no Par 3 Contest winner has ever put on the green jacket four days later, can you blame them?
Winning on Wednesday hardly matters; it's a mere footnote in the vast catalog of Masters legend and lore. The Par 3 Contest, entertaining as it is, is golf's guilty pleasure reality show. The real show starts now.