AUGUSTA, Ga. — Lee Westwood’s mum walked away from the ninth hole, waving her hand in front of her face on a balmy spring day.
“I feel sorry for the caddies,” Trish Westwood said with a flushed smile.
At least she wasn’t wearing white coveralls and hauling around heavy bags as the mercury climbed into the mid-80s Wednesday. Still, there was nowhere else she wanted to be.
Such is the appeal of the Par 3 Contest, one of those Masters traditions like no other.
Everyone from moms to small children — some barely old enough to walk — take on caddying duties. The greats of the game, long past their prime, thrill the patrons with a few more swings. Technically, they’re keeping score, but everyone knows it’s all for fun. No need to get worked up about these nine holes. That’s for Thursday, after everyone moves over to “the big course.”
“It’s a good way to unwind before the stress of the tournament starts,” Brandt Snedeker said after finishing up. “This is a great way to relax and spend time with your family.”
This picturesque spot — nine exquisite little holes tucked into the northeast edge of Augusta National Golf Club — provides another of those quirky trademarks that sets the first major of the year apart from the next three.
Where else can you see a threesome that includes Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player? Where else can you see former top-ranked tennis player Caroline Wozniacki on the bag for her boyfriend, Rory McIlroy? Where else can you find 91-year-old Jack Fleck, who won the 1955 U.S. Open in one of golf’s greatest upsets, taking a few whacks?
“It’s fun down here,” Fred Couples said. “It’s a good little spot.”
Especially when Nicklaus, Palmer and Player — with 34 major championships among them — stroll around the “little course” for an hour or so, providing a running commentary on the deteriorating state of their once-mighty games.
After the 83-year-old Palmer sliced one into the water, he joked, “That was my last ball.”
“I can loan you one,” the 73-year-old Nicklaus quipped, as he hunched over to tee up his ball.
“Is my credit good?” Palmer asked.
“Good with me,” Nicklaus said.
The Par 3 Contest was first played at Augusta in 1960, on a course designed by architect George Cobb and club founder Clifford Roberts. There are nine holes covering a tidy 1,060 yards, ranging from the 70-yard second to the 140-yard sixth. As Palmer can attest, there are two bodies of water that can come into play, DeSoto Springs Pond and Ike’s Pond — named after former president and club member Dwight Eisenhower.
No one has ever won the Par 3 Contest and gone on to win the Masters, which doesn’t bode well for Ted Potter Jr. He beat Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar in a three-way, two-hole playoff after they tied at 4-under 23. Ernie Els and Nick Watney also shot 23, but they had already left the course and didn’t take part in the playoff.
Fred Couples was asked about the Par 3 jinx. He just shrugged it off.
“I wouldn’t mind winning this once. But I’ve never been close,” he said.
Augusta awards a prize to the winner, as well as those finishing closest to each hole. Or for going in the hole.
Like 61-year-old Ben Crenshaw, who aced the 115-yard seventh — holding out his arms, grinning from ear to ear, and soaking in the applause.
Watney broke into a much more demonstrative celebration when he made a hole-in-one at the 135-yard ninth, running around the tee box chest-bumping with his playing partners and the caddies.
“I’m not sure what that was,” Watney said. “I’m sure we looked like fools, but it was fun.”
He feigned a leap into the pond, but thought better of it.
“I guess I chickened out,” Watney said sheepishly.
Wozniacki, on the other hand, didn’t come close to a hole-in-one when McIlroy handed her a club at the ninth.
She wound up, took a mighty swing — and sent the ball dribbling into the water, just a few yards away.
Better stick to a tennis racquet.
For those with families, the Par 3 Contest provides a chance to spend the day with their children — young and grown-up.
“It’s really cool,” said three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo. “Fortunately, my big kids wanted to caddie. Georgia, my daughter, is 20 and she hasn’t been back to Augusta in moons. She booked the bag, which is really nice.
“I’m living on memories here,” he added.
And, really, that’s what the Par 3 Contest is all about.
Luke Donald will always remember when he turned the putter over to his 3-year-old daughter, Elle, as is the custom on the final hole.
She whacked the ball hard — a little too hard — and sent it zipping past the cup. She rolled in the next one, however, then sprinted off the course with her parents in pursuit.
“She hit it a little hard, but she made the comeback,” her dad said. “I like the aggressive stroke.”
Palmer was too aggressive on the final hole, striking the ball with that low, whipping swing that served him so well in his day. He was trying to take aim at the flag tucked in the front of the green. Instead, he came up short, the ball rolling down the bank and into Ike’s Pond.
Nicklaus and Player got safely across the water, playing to the back of the green, then all three of the legends strolled slowly around the pond, accompanied by the roars of an appreciative crowd.
Palmer didn’t quite make it the green. He plopped down in a marshal’s seat off the side, signing a few autographs but looking downright pooped.
“I think I’m done playing,” he said, managing a weak smile.
Until next year, that is.