The short of it: How Augusta National’s Par-3 Course became a little piece of perfection

Ed. note: No, the Masters Par 3 will not take place at this 84th Masters, but its rare absence provides an opportunity to reflect on its unique history and remember why, at just over 1,000 yards, it remains so beloved.

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There are now famous par-3 courses in every corner of the golf world, but for many years there was only one, and it added to the wonderment of Masters week. “Augusta’s was the first really great par-3 course I had ever played, and I think most guys would say that,” says Ben Crenshaw. “But it’s more than a novelty; it’s a little piece of art.”

Every Wednesday of Masters week, Augusta National’s Par 3 Course (it’s so seminal, it gets the capital-letter treatment) takes center stage, hosting a mirthful tournament defined by cute caddies and artful wedge play. On the other practice-round days, the course still sees plenty of action. “I would play it a lot throughout Masters week to sharpen my wedge game, which is so critically important once the tournament begins,” says Gary Player. “It was also good for your nerves, because it is such a beautiful, peaceful place, and when playing it you feel far removed from all the other activity happening on the big course.”

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The Par 3 offers another form of escapism, as the ponds have traditionally been stocked for fishing. “I remember my first Masters, in 1972,” Crenshaw says. “I was walking down the hill to the Par 3 and Sam Snead was walking up, carrying about a six-pound fish. He took it to the clubhouse and they cooked it up for him and he ate it right then and there. That’s the kind of guy he was.”

When the Masters leaves town, the Par 3 Course remains a beehive of activity. Augusta National’s membership is mostly senior citizens, and the Par 3 is a less demanding alternative to the big course. Six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus is a dues-paying member of the club, and about his visits to ANGC outside of tournament week, he says, “Virtually never have I brought a group and we didn’t play the Par 3 also. It’s always very special.”

It is also a popular place to settle any bets that carry over after a spin through Amen Corner. “I’ve never had to do that,” Nicklaus says, “but I imagine a lot of people do.”

Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and their significant others at the Masters Par-3.

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The Par 3 has a long and interesting history. While designing Augusta National, Alister MacKenzie also drew up plans for a nine-hole short course to be played at 405 yards. It was a radical vision at the time for the native Scotsman. “The only short courses that existed in the early history of golf in the UK were courses built for women as an adjunct to the men’s course at a club,” says historian Stephen Proctor.

“There is, as far as I know, no interesting approach and putt course in America,” MacKenzie wrote in a letter in 1932, the year construction began on Augusta National’s championship course. “A really good one requires as much thought and planning as a full course. All those I have seen are terrible.”

Surprisingly, Augusta National cofounder Bobby Jones did not share the good Doctor’s enthusiasm. After touring the proposed location, Jones changed the site plan so that area was labeled “Reserved for Park.” Undeterred, the following year MacKenzie sketched out an 18-hole, 2,460-yard short course. But with the country still in the grip of the Great Depression, Augusta National was having trouble paying its bills and unable to take on the added costs of another construction project.

The layout of the Augusta National Par 3 Course.

Illustration by Darren Robinson

For a quarter-century MacKenzie’s dream languished until chairman Clifford Roberts resurrected it, calling the Par 3 “my pet project.” Roberts was a renowned putter, but by 1958 he was 64 years old; a short course was the perfect place for this ferocious competitor to press his advantage. The Par 3 opened in ’58. Construction was overseen by George W. Cobb, a prolific course designer whose portfolio includes Quail Hollow, site of the 2017 PGA Championship. As was his nature, Roberts was intimately involved. The 1,060-yard layout “was designed by George W. Cobb with help from Roberts,” so states the delicate phrasing in Augusta National’s official history, The Making of the Masters, by David Owen. At first, the Par 3 was not embraced by the membership. Writes Owen, “A number of members were initially skeptical about the short course — viewing it, Roberts said, as a waste of money and referring to it derisively as a ‘Tom Thumb course.’” But with its lovely ponds, elevation changes and, according to Player, “greens nearly as fast as the big course,” the Par 3 Course quickly became a beloved institution.

The first Masters-week Par 3 Contest was held in 1960, and Snead caught another big fish, winning the crystal trophy. The annual tournament has been the venue for many memorable moments, including in 2018, when Nicklaus let his 15-year-old grandson G.T. hit a tee shot on the 9th hole and the kid jarred it to rapturous applause, what the Golden Bear called, “the greatest day I’ve had at Augusta National.” Asked recently if time has tempered that view, Nicklaus says, “Absolutely not. Why would I waffle on it and change my mind? I’m not a politician.”

In 1978, the Par 3 helped change the Masters forever when the little course’s greens were converted to bentgrass from a hybrid bermuda. The experiment was deemed a success and two years later bent greens were installed on the big course, making them even purer. Nicklaus won on both surfaces, aided by his preparations on the Par 3.

Jack Nicklaus and his grandson, G.T., celebrate G.T.’s ace in 2018.

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“I thought it was a great place to practice,” he says. He exported that idea with the founding of the Bear’s Club, in Jupiter, Fla., in 1999. To help the many touring pros at the club prepare for varying conditions they face away from home, different varietals of sand are found in the bunkers, including some sugary grains imported from Augusta National. Crenshaw — who helped create the much ballyhooed, 13-hole Bandon Preserve, among other little gems — has no doubt that Augusta National begat the contemporary trend of artful short courses.

“It showed us how good a par 3 really could be,” he says. “They used to be designed just for beginners: dead-flat, round greens and almost no hazards. For good players they were, honestly, pretty boring. But Augusta’s had some real teeth while still always being great fun.”

Asked which course at Augusta National has provided him more enjoyment through the years, Crenshaw laughed and said, “That’s the beautiful thing: You don’t have to choose! I’ve always loved playing the Par 3 after a round on the big course. It’s like the perfect dessert after a great meal.”

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Alan Shipnuck

Golf.com

GOLF senior writer Alan Shipnuck writes longform features and a monthly column for GOLF Magazine and has his own vertical on GOLF.com entitled “The Knockdown,” which is home to podcasts, video vignettes, event coverage and his popular weekly mailbag #AskAlan. He is the author of five books on golf, including na­tional best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees and The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger). Shipnuck is very active on Twitter, with a following of 50,000.