Masters Digest: Aces high as Jimmy Walker wins Par-3 contest

Jimmy Walker celebrates with his son after winning the Par 3 Contest. Picture: Getty Images

Jimmy Walker celebrates with his son after winning the Par 3 Contest. Picture: Getty Images

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Jimmy Walker believes he can end the “curse” of the Par-3 champion after a record-breaking edition of the traditional pre-Masters contest on Wednesday.

Walker set a new record of just 19 shots for the picturesque par-three course in the grounds of Augusta National, carding a hole-in-one and six birdies to finish eight under par.

The 37-year-old’s ace on the second was one of nine in total, beating the previous record of five, with 80-year-old Gary Player becoming the oldest competitor to make a hole-in-one when he holed out on the seventh.

Since the contest started in 1960, nobody has ever become par-three and Masters champion in the same week, but Walker told ESPN: “I think we’ll do it.

“I’ve been playing really well. I came here to win. The par-three is a showcase of having fun and maybe it shows I need to have my kids out on the golf course with me a little more.

“It was sweet. I almost aced the first, then did ace the second and just kept hitting it close.”

Player, who was competing alongside Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, said: “I played with Jack last year and he did it and he said ‘It’s your turn this year’.”

The three-time Masters champion had not even teed off on the next hole before another roar indicated that Open champion Zach Johnson had also holed out on the seventh, while the most spectacular action came on the 130-yard fourth, where Justin Thomas recorded a hole-in-one and then saw playing partner Rickie Fowler do exactly the same.

That left the final member of the group, none other than defending champion Jordan Spieth, to try to make it an amazing hat-trick, but the world number two came up short of the flag - and was jokingly booed by the crowd.

“I said it might have been the hardest shot I ever hit, trying to follow them,” Spieth told ESPN. “To see Justin make it and Rickie follow, that’s got to be the first time in the par-three contest.”

Andy Sullivan, David Lingmerth, Webb Simpson, Smylie Kaufman were the other players to record holes-in-one, with Sullivan doing so on the fifth.

“I was complaining about the crowd not cheering,” Sullivan said. “Emiliano (Grillo) had hit it to a foot and they did nothing. Then they just went nuts and just erupted. My first time around the par-three and to get a hole in one, it’s fantastic.”

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Masters chairman Billy Payne believes the “fire is building” in Tiger Woods and predicted the 14-time major winner could soon be back in action. Woods has not played since August last year after undergoing a third back operation in the space of 19 months and is not competing at Augusta National this week for just the second time in his career.

However, the 40-year-old did attend Tuesday’s Champions Dinner and made a good impression on Payne, who is targeting June for his own comeback after having what he described as “another very major back surgery” in November.

Asked in his annual pre-tournament press conference whether he or Woods would be back in action first, Payne joked: “Last night he looked good. He looked better than me. I was delighted.

“You know, he’s encouraged. I could tell the fire is building back up in his belly and I suspect Tiger’s going to be back fairly quickly, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Woods, who has won the Masters four times, confirmed on Friday he would not play this year in a statement on his website.

“After assessing the present condition of my back, and consulting with my medical team, I’ve decided it’s prudent to miss this year’s Masters,” Woods wrote.

“I’ve been hitting balls and training daily, but I’m not physically ready. I’ve said all along that this time I need to be cautious and do what’s best for my long-term health and career. Unfortunately, playing Augusta next week wouldn’t be the right decision. I’m absolutely making progress, and I’m really happy with how far I’ve come, but I still have no timetable to return to competitive golf.”

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Peter Oosterhuis has been made the 49th honorary life member of the European Tour in recognition of his stellar career as a player and broadcaster.

Oosterhuis was European number one from 1971 to 1974 and went on to win seven times on the European Tour, as well as finishing runner-up in the Open Championship in 1974 and 1982.

The 67-year-old Englishman represented Europe in six Ryder Cups at the height of American dominance of the biennial contest, but won six of his eight singles matches, including a famous victory over Arnold Palmer in 1971.

He made America his home and went on to enjoy a hugely successful career as a TV analyst before retiring last year after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Oosterhuis, who was guest of honour at the annual European Tour dinner held at the Augusta Country Club during the Masters on Tuesday night, said: “I have to be honest and say that I am completely overwhelmed by this award and the reception you all have given myself and my family this evening.

“To join the list of great names who have been given honorary life membership is very humbling and I thank the European Tour from the bottom of my heart.”

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Chairman Billy Payne has described the possibility of introducing modified equipment solely for the Masters as a “last resort” after confirming changes are being considered to a number of holes at Augusta National.

The fourth, fifth and 13th could be altered after changes to the outskirts of the property and a potential purchase of land from the adjacent Augusta Country Club.

Six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus reiterated on Tuesday that “the simplest solution is (to) change the frigging golf ball” to reduce how far it travels, but Payne would be reluctant to go down that route.

“As we’ve stated many times going back many years, we retain all options,” Payne told his annual pre-tournament press conference. “At the same time, it’s not something we would want to do.

“And as it relates specifically to 13, which seems to be the subject du jour, we think there are multiple options where we could increase the difficulty of the hole and restore the shot values, only one of which deals with extending the length.

“So we are in the middle of all of those studies, a lot of arithmetic, a lot of design issues, and we would only resort to equipment as the last resort because we believe that the governing bodies in golf deal with that very effectively.”

Another issue for golf’s governing bodies is the crowded schedule in Olympic years, with the US Open, Open Championship and US PGA Championship squeezed into a seven-week period in 2016.

That has led to suggestions that the US PGA could move to February in 2020, meaning the Masters would lose its distinction as the first major of the year.

Payne said he had not considered such a possibility before adding: “It won’t affect our ticket sales, I’ll tell you that.”

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Former US Open champion Webb Simpson labelled it the “craziest stat” of 2015 when Justin Rose shot 14 under par in two majors and won neither, but Rose would gladly accept the same score in this week’s Masters.

“For the next 10 years, absolutely. I sure would,” joked Rose, who succeeded Simpson as US Open champion with a one-over-par total at Merion in 2013.

Despite being a combined 34 under par for the majors in 2015, the fourth best total in history, Rose finished four shots behind Jordan Spieth at Augusta National, missed the play-off in the Open at St Andrews by the same margin and was six shots adrift of Jason Day at the US PGA.

Rose’s total of 274 has only been bettered six times in Masters history, but the 35-year-old took great confidence from the fact that it took a stunning performance from Spieth to prevent him becoming the first European player to win a green jacket and US Open.

“The Masters is a tournament as a young kid I watched probably more than any of the others,” Rose said. “The fact it came on late at night and you were able bribe your parents to stay up was probably part of the attraction. It’s always had something special.

“To back up a US Open win with a Masters would be just incredible. Obviously the Open Championship is my home event and that’s going to be one that’s always on the hit list.

“But to win here, it’s a venue that we come back year on year, you begin to develop that relationship with the course, the venue, the feel, the tournament. And it’s somewhere I feel very, very comfortable. I’ve had a lot of good rounds here. Last year I was able to put four together in a row.

“If I look back at the 16th green (in the final round), I felt that if I make my birdie putt and Jordan misses for par, it’s a two-shot swing and I’m two back with two to play. But my putt just slid by and he made a great eight-footer to keep his momentum.

“Essentially I was beaten by an all-time great performance so I take a lot of confidence from that; many other years, that level of performance is good enough to win. If you get beaten by a better guy on the week, you tip your cap. But I know that what I was able to do last year tells me I’ve got what it takes to win the tournament going forward.”

Despite finishing joint second with Phil Mickelson last year, Rose has barely been considered as a contender in 2016 due to the focus on Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, although he is not complaining.

“That’s fine with me,” Rose added. “I haven’t really had any fireworks yet this year, to sort of come in here with people having me at the front of their mind.

“I feel like all of my backroom work has all been fantastic and my preparation has been coming along nicely. (I’m) under the radar, but certainly feeling good with my game.”

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