AUGUSTA, Ga. — One day, maybe, Tiger Woods and a player he finds mildly irritating, Rory Sabbatini, will break bread together at the annual Champions Dinner at Augusta National. Then again, maybe not. The Big Roar — the little South African makes noise whenever he talks — won the Wednesday Par-3 tournament, with a nifty 22, five under par. No winner of the Par 3 has ever gone on and won the other event, the four-day one played on the big course. Maybe Sabo will break that trend — he certainly has enough game and confidence to someday win at Augusta. But history says he won’t.
At least the Wednesday afternoon patrons got to see Sabbatini and his swashbuckling, big-belted swing. Tiger elected not to play in the little golfing get-together, a glorified hit-and-giggle event that is not to his liking, for understandable reasons. The course is loaded with autograph seekers, and Woods doesn’t like to sign. The spectators are allowed to take photographs, which Tiger doesn’t really dig, either. And it’s not a serious competition.
“It’s changed over the years,” Woods said in his Tuesday press conference. “Used to be, I thought it was a lot of fun to play. But now it’s a little bit distracting.” Jack Nicklaus used to say about the same thing, although he played most years. Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Adam Scott, among others, did not play, either.
But Jack did, with Gary Player and Arnold Palmer. (So did Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Fred Couples and most everybody else in the field.) The Big Three playing golf together, you can’t get tired of it. This was the first year the event was on TV, and that threesome was a producer’s dream. Somewhere in it, you may see the fingerprints of the Augusta National chairman, Billy Payne. He’s a huge fan of the informal Par-3 tournament, in part because he sees it as a way of introducing the game to kids. Many players have their young children (or, in the case of Nicklaus and Player, grandchildren) as caddies, and sometimes those caddies get to play shots and make putts. All part of the fun, if you think that sort of thing is fun. Most people not named Tiger Woods think such things are fun.
Anyway, Billy P. has not given up on the idea of Tiger returning to the event at some point. The junior caddies wear junior-sized versions of the heavy white caddie overalls. Said Payne, “I will tell you that I have instructed them to save for the future those little caddie uniforms in Sam’s size.” That would be Sam Woods, Tiger’s infant daughter.
When Clifford Roberts started the Par-3 contest in 1960, he intended for it to be a fairly serious, as he described it, “medal competition.” Over the years, it’s morphed into something lighter. The club does not publish an official list of finishers because many players do not post scorecards. In the Player-Nicklaus-Palmer threesome, there were no official cards, and who cares? But Nicklaus was even par through eight, stiffed his tee shot on nine and let his grandson, Jack Nicklaus III, knock it in for him. If he put his mind to it (he’s moved on to other things), Nicklaus would surely be one of the best 1,000 golfers in the world. Of course, that means nothing when you once owned the game.
Vaughn Taylor — of Augusta, Ga., it should be noted — said playing in the event is one thing, but winning it is another, because of the longstanding winner’s jinx. “If I was leading through eight, I might just three-putt the ninth green,” he said. Nobody in the history of golf will ever improve on Wayne Grady’s score on the ninth. Playing as an honorary invitee — along with major winners Paul Azinger and Andy North and Ian Baker-Finch — the Australian made a one on the home hole, over idyllic Ike’s Pond. The roar was deafening — bigger than the roars you hear on the big course, really, because you have so many people in such a compact area.
Fred Couples made an ace on the seventh hole, with a sand wedge from 102 yards (downhill). It got loud. “Is there a word ‘roary’ ?” Fred asked in his inimitable way. (Yes, yes there is. Now, anyway.) “It’s pretty roary out there. Not Rory Sabbatini. But roaring.”
Paul Azinger made an ace, too, and after that people started yelling at him, “Play good tomorrow, Zinger!” Which he found funny, as he is not in the tournament proper. When he came in from his tour of nine of the prettiest par-3 holes you could ever want to see, he checked his cell phone for messages. His first one, by way of text, was from Nick Faldo, his Ryder Cup nemesis in another century, his broadcast partner more recently and, come September, his opposite number in the Ryder Cup. (Azinger leads the U.S. squad and Faldo the European.)
“Here he is, my supposed arch-enemy Nick Faldo,” Azinger said, reading the text of the message. He laughed — it had something to do with making an ace, no doubt. An ace that gets you a nice piece of crystal and that’s about it. Anyway, Azinger looked happy.
All in good fun.