Palmer kept Par-3 Contest laid-back fun

Arnold Palmer never missed a chance to tee it up and have some fun on the golf course.

Whether it was in a major championship or in the daily “Shootout” with his cronies at Bay Hill, Palmer loved to play.

Augusta was no different. He regularly played in the Par-3 Contest on the eve of the tournament proper and, when his competitive days were over, he became an honorary starter.

The Par-3 began in 1960 when Palmer was in the midst of a seven-year stretch that would yield four Masters titles and three other major championships. The Par-3 jinx might not have existed quite yet — no player has won the Par-3 and the Masters in the same year — but that didn’t keep Palmer from playing. In fact, he won the 1967 contest in a playoff.

Palmer enjoyed the camaraderie and laid-back atmosphere of the Par-3. It wasn’t uncommon for him to have a friendly wager with his playing companions. His son-in-law, Roy Saunders, recalled one year when Palmer and Fuzzy Zoeller were paired together. A hole-in-one at the ninth was worth a tidy sum.

Photos: Arnold Palmer at The Masters

“So Fuzzy gets up on the ninth tee and drains it,” said Saunders, who was caddying. “So Mr. Palmer hit his shot, and his ball stopped about one rotation from going dead-in center. The crowd erupted. Mr. Palmer honored his wager, he got out his money and peeled off the appropriate amount and handed it to Fuzzy.”

In recent years, Palmer was a Wednesday staple as he toured the Par-3 course alongside fellow Big Three members Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

And while those younger players might get the best of Palmer, he could boast that he was a Par-3 champion and they were not.

After the honorary starter tradition ended in 2002 with the death of Sam Snead, Palmer was the natural choice to revive it. He played in his 50th and final Masters in 2004, then waited two years before taking over ceremonial duties in 2007.

Thousands of fans lined up before dawn to make sure they were in position to see Palmer hit the ceremonial tee shot. The King didn’t disappoint.

“Sure is pretty, isn’t it?” Palmer said before launching his tee shot down the left side and into the second cut.

Nicklaus joined Palmer in 2010, and Player made it a trio on the first tee in 2012.

Palmer hit his last tee shot in 2015, but he made one final appearance in 2016. He posed for photos with Nicklaus and Player and gave a thumbs-up to those who surrounded the first tee.

The ceremony was more emotional than usual because there was a sense that it might be Palmer’s last. He died in September.

“I think both Gary and I felt it was more about Arnold this morning than anything else, and I think that was just fine,” Nicklaus said.

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ON THIS DATE: 

1956: Amateur Ken Venturi shot 6-under 66 to lead after the first round.

1959: Art Wall birdied five of his last six holes to win by one shot over Cary Middlecoff.

1990: Mike Donald shot 8-under 64 to match the lowest opening score in tournament history.

INNOVATION: 

Most tournaments offer an exhibition or pro-am rounds before the competition begins. In the early days of the Masters, an iron play contest and an alternate shot event were held.

Those gave way to an instructional clinic and long driving contest, but in 1960 the Masters came up with a unique event: the Par-3 Contest.

The contest is held on the Wednesday before the tournament, and participation is optional. Players often invite their children, spouses or celebrities to be their caddies for a day. The contest is open to tournament competitors and noncompeting past champions.

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