AUGUSTA, Ga. If the Masters really is a tradition unlike any other, then the Par 3 Contest is unlike any other Masters tradition.
A new chapter was written on Wednesday afternoon as tens of thousands of fans lined the hilly, nine-hole, 1,060-yard course to get up close with the pros. Defending Masters champion Phil Mickelson played with Fred Couples and Padraig Harrington in the first group, a fitting start to a spectator-friendly afternoon Mickelson signs as many autographs as anyone on Tour. This is one event where fans and players are in constant communication, and for everyone involved, the Par 3 Contest is a big part of Masters week.
"It's absolutely fantastic; You see the players relaxed, and you see their good-natured side," said Boris Stcherbina, 63, who traveled from Sydney, Australia, with his son Mark to attend his first Masters. "Every Masters DVD you see, there's a segment on the Par 3. But we have a saying in Australia: It's never the same unless you're in the game."
The game Wednesday was, as is the case every year, light and casual. You can't blame the pros for failing to stress about their scores. It's a well-publicized fact that no Par 3 Contest winner has gone on to win the Masters that same week. After capturing last year's Par 3, Louis Oosthuizen went out and missed the cut (although he did win the British Open in July). Earlier this week, Oosthuizen said that he still doesn't buy the idea of a Par 3 jinx.
"I don't like to believe in things like that, but it happens all the time. My little girl is going to walk with me [Wednesday], so I'll probably try and get her to kick the ball or something so my scores don't count."
The pros don't focus on the final results, and the fans are the real winners. From the moment players set foot on the course's grounds, which start just a mid-iron away from the main clubhouse, fans line the ropes and clutch Masters memorabilia in hopes of a signature. More often than not, those autographs are given. The Par 3 is about as family friendly as golf gets, and special areas near the tee boxes are roped off to allow kids to get even closer and collect more signatures.
Among those youngsters on Wednesday were 8-year-old twins Palmer and Hogan Wright, of Omaha, Neb. (They also have a younger brother named Nicklaus, and yes, this is the kind of thing you can only find at the Masters. Or, I suppose, an Omaha elementary school.) Palmer's favorite player is Dustin Johnson, and a few minutes after D.J. signed Palmer's Masters flag, he turned to me and declared, "It was awesome." By day's end, it was common to see kids holding flags or wearing hats that contained dozens of signatures.
Wednesday's glamour group was the threesome of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, which is also becoming an annual tradition. The Hall-of-Famers signed autographs, posed for photos and received standing ovations on every hole. While many patrons scored signatures from golf's Big Three, one fan, 49-year-old Larry Smith of Philadelphia, took home one of the day's most unique souvenirs: a divot from Nicklaus's tee shot on No. 6.
"What am I going to do with a divot? What do you do with a divot?" asked Smith, moments after sliding a four-inch clump of dirt and grass into his front pocket. "I guess I'll try to keep it alive. Jack Nicklaus was my golf hero from the time I was young. Seeing him with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player is just a thrill."
You can't blame Smith for being slightly dumbfounded. Pros come through at a dizzying pace, with smiles and sharpies and divots and jokes flying. There was Ian Poulter signing his ball after putting out and handing it to the fan he struck with his tee shot. There was Rory Sabbatini dropping his club and stomping around a tee box in mock disgust after hitting the pin and watching his ball roll into Ike's Pond. There was Craig Stadler making an ace on No. 1, the 73rd hole-in-one in the event's history. There was Stuart Appleby mugging for TV cameras with his three adorable kids, each clad in a caddie bib. There was Phil plowing through the autograph lines. There were Jack, Arnie and Gary being, well, Jack, Arnie and Gary.
Ironically enough, the event was once not so family oriented. Rucker Vaiden, a 66-year-old Augusta native, attended the Par 3 back in its early years, and said that the atmosphere at the Contest has changed dramatically.
"This used to be a party. They'd sell a lot of beer here, and they'd let you bring a cooler," Vaiden said. He guessed this was his seventh Par 3 Contest, but added that the actual number is probably higher.
"I don't remember the old ones I was drunk," he said with a laugh.
Today you can't bring a cooler, but you can buy a beer for $3 at a concession stand and bring it over to the Par 3. Some traditions evolve. This year Luke Donald won the Par 3 contest by shooting a five-under 22. Maybe he'll claim the green jacket this week and start a new tradition. Whatever the case, the Par 3 Contest is one annual ritual that shows no sign of letting up.
And that's great news, for everyone involved.