AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 06: Stewart Cink celebrates with Zach Johnson after nearly making a hole-in-one on the ninth hole during the Par 3 Contest prior to the 2011 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 6, 2011 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Will this be the year the curse of The Masters Par 3 Contest is broken? More on that, as well as what to watch for as this year's event kicks off on Wednesday.
The most entertaining pre-Masters tradition takes place on Wednesday, as golfers take to the other course at Augusta National Golf Club for the Par 3 Contest. A yearly tradition that began in 1960, the Par 3 Contest is a light-hearted event, sandwiched in between practice rounds just one day before The Masters begins.
While there is a reward for the winner, in the form of a crystal bowl, the Par 3 contest is more about the experience -- for both the players and their fans. For years, it quietly existed, until ESPN began televising the event four years ago. Since then, it's become a made-for-TV contest, with handpicked groups chosen for broadcast window.
There's a few things to keep in mind ahead of Wednesday's Par 3 Contest, including one important curse that still has yet to be broken.
This isn't your typical municipal par 3 course. At Augusta National, everything on the grounds is carefully manicured, aligning with the image the club puts forth. The Augusta National Par 3 Course is a miniature version of the 18-hole championship course, with sloping greens, tricky tee shots and plenty of hazards.
Ike's Pond, named after Dwight Eisenhower, who proposed a fishing area during his time as a member, is a center-point of the par 3 course, with the tee shots for the final two holes playing over water.
Did it seem odd when a leader, and Masters contender, triple bogeyed the ninth hole of the Par 3 Contest? Why are children taking putts and hitting tee shots? Does anyone actually want to win the Par 3 Contest?
The answer to the last question solves the first two riddles. Real or not, there is a longstanding "curse" on The Masters Par 3 Contest winner. After all, no Par 3 Contest champion has gone on to win the main event in the same year. Golfers are a superstitious bunch -- from lucky head covers to marking balls with a certain coin aligned in a certain fashion on the green -- so the curse is serious business.
A good bounce or a bit of luck always seems to come into play over the course of a typical tournament, so it's easy to see why golfers tend to slant toward the superstitious end of the spectrum. Then again, maybe this is the year the curse is finally broken (but probably not).
While the top players have their own steady caddies for actual events, the Par 3 Contest is a different story. The day before The Masters is a time to relax and have a little fun before it's time to get down to business on Thursday. As such, golfers have kids in tow during the Par 3 Contest, dressed in the same white jumpsuits the caddies wear during the tournament.
It's not uncommon to see the kids hitting tee shots with oversized golf balls and undersized clubs, or lining up putts with the help of their fathers. The relaxed atmosphere is a nice change of pace from the rest of the week, which features planning on Monday and Tuesday, and the event itself from Thursday through Sunday.
Unlike The Masters itself, the Par 3 Contest is a chance for fans to get up close and personal with some of their favorite golfers. It's a big draw every year, with the spectacle growing recently as ESPN placed more attention on the contest with a live broadcast and an online stream. The crowds have swelled, and the players spend time meeting and greeting the fans, even signing autographs at times.
The Par 3 Contest is a more family friendly event, with kids lining the ropes, playing in the grass and even following their fathers and grandfathers on the course -- Jack Nicklaus always has a grandchild in tow, it seems.
This video captures it all pretty well, from the aces to Arnold Palmer draining a putt from off the green at No. 9, and everything in between.
What To Watch For
If the 2012 Par 3 Contest is like the year prior, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus will be the must-see group of the day. The three have been grouped together for the last few years, drawing huge crowds and providing entertainment on the Wednesday before The Masters. The three golf legends remain the faces of the sport, and seeing them out on the course is always enjoyable.
The Par 3 also provides a chance to see some of the stars -- Phil Mickelson, most notably -- and the younger generation. The wide-eyed first-timers are always fun to keep an eye on as they soak in the Par 3 Contest and everything else at Augusta National. These younger players -- fringe competitors in The Masters -- are also the most likely to go all-out in the Par 3 Contest, playing the nine holes in more serious fashion.
It all gets under way Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. ET. Coverage of the Par 3 Contest begins at 3 p.m. on ESPN and online at Masters.com.