Par-3 event never short on fun

But since inception, winner has never captured season's first major

April 06, 2006|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN REPORTER

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The crowds stood 10-deep yesterday afternoon at Augusta National, watching legends and relative unknowns alike as they played one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world.

It wasn't the 7,445-yard, par-72 monster that will begin to swallow up the field in the 70th Masters beginning today, but the 1,060-yard, par-3 course on which one of golf's most charming events takes place the day before the season's first major begins.

It's the tournament that everyone loves to play and few, if any, want to win. Ever since the legendary Sam Snead won the inaugural par-3 tournament in 1960, nobody has gone on to win the main event come Sunday.

Snead won the par-3 tournament again in 1974, becoming its oldest champion a month before his 62nd birthday.

The list of winners includes the names of 10 former Masters champions, including Snead, Arnold Palmer (1969), Tom Watson (1982) and Ray Floyd (1990). The one name noticeable by its absence is six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus.

"I never played it the year I won," Nicklaus said shortly after finishing the par-3 event yesterday. "The reason was, I was working so hard and I had my preparation the way I wanted it, to play a different set of greens and get my focus different from what I was doing, I just didn't want to do that."

Now it's different. The par-3 tournament is filled with toddlers trying to caddy for their fathers, and former rivals, such as Nicklaus and Watson, sharing one more moment in the quickly fading spotlight.

"It's nice for us old guys," said Nicklaus, 65, who likely played in his last Masters a year ago . "They just let us go play a little bit, and some of the young guys play and the people enjoy it."

"It's a fun way of starting the tournament," said Ben Crenshaw, whose par-3 tournament win came in 1987, three years after he won here for the first time and eight years before he won his second Masters. "It gets the atmosphere going."

Nicklaus got into the spirit by allowing his 11-year-old grandson, Charlie, to take the final putt. When Charlie Nicklaus rolled in a 5-footer for birdie on the closing ninth hole, someone near the green muttered, "Typical Nicklaus."

But it wasn't just the fans who found it special to watch Nicklaus and Watson play together. So did two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, who was playing with them.

On Tuesday, North's wife Susan received a telephone call from Barbara Nicklaus asking what her husband had planned for yesterday.

"I wasn't going to play, but I guess I could put off work for a couple of hours to play with these two guys," said North, now an analyst for ESPN.

North recalled the first time he ever played in the par-3 tournament.

"The most nervous I was ever at Augusta was the first tee shot at the par-3 my first year," North said. "I took it very seriously when I first got here. It was a great place to come Monday or Tuesday afternoon to work on your short game."

North had an opportunity to win the par-3 tournament a few years back after he started out making a string of birdies.

"I played here well two or three times and one year I was a bunch under going to 8, and I hit two or three in the water, if I remember correctly, making sure there was no chance anything was going to happen," North said.

Is there a curse?

"I don't think anyone takes that all that seriously," North said. "Just make sure it doesn't happen."

Playing in his first Masters today, and his first par-3 tournament yesterday, Ben Crane birdied the first two holes and went on to shoot 4-under-par 23, winning by a stroke over five others.

"Stepping on the first tee was quite a rush," Crane said. "You never know how the week might turn out; somebody has to break that trend."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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