AUGUSTA, Ga. – Gary Player says golf owns two spectacular evenings: one that follows any Open Championship at St. Andrews – when champions return to play “with all the pomp and ceremony” –and the traditional Tuesday Masters Champions Dinner at Augusta National Golf Club.
“The things that happen, the conversations … you’re sitting in a room with hundreds and hundreds of victories,” Player said. “Sitting there in that room, how many major championships have been won? One-hundred-fifty, maybe? More? I don’t know. It’s amazing.”
(Player was hazarding a best guess. Actually, there are 32 living Masters champions who have accounted for 103 major titles. All but Jack Burke Jr. are expected to attend tonight’s dinner at Augusta.)
When Player attended his first Champions Dinner in 1962, one year after winning the first of his three Masters titles, the event was housed inside the locker room, with players spread out at four-person tables. When 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett plays host to the dinner Tuesday night, it will be upstairs, with champions from various eras seated at tables arranged in a horseshoe formation.
Jordan Spieth youngest attendee at 23
Attendees, ranging from 94-year-old Doug Ford to 23-year-old Jordan Spieth, hail from all over the globe but have one giant common thread: They have won a Masters title. The only exception in the room is Billy Payne, who is the Augusta National chairman.
The current champion plays host to the dinner and pays for and chooses the menu, the fare through the years ranging from cheeseburgers and fries (Tiger Woods), to Boerwors with monkey gland sauce (served by South African Charl Schwartzel), to Moreton Bay “bugs” (lobsters) offered up by Aussie Adam Scott.
Willett, from England, will serve up a Yorkshire fare, giving champions a small smattering of what they might encounter dining inside a British pub.
“You know, obviously we see each other as fellow golfers, friends,” Willett said Tuesday. “But to be part of that group, you know, this is the 81st Masters. Obviously, there’s been a few champions that have passed away but there’s only been 81 green jackets and a few of them guys have obviously got a few. To be able to sit in a room with the legends of the game, past and present, is going to be something special.”
Nick Faldo, a three-time Masters winner, said a champion has many duties when he returns to Augusta National a year later to attempt to defend a title, but the Tuesday dinner is one activity that “makes you stop and think.”
Snead, Sarazen, Nelson, Palmer, Nicklaus …
Faldo’s first shot at hosting the dinner came in 1990, the April after he beat Scott Hoch in a playoff.
“You are in that absolute awe of it,” Faldo said, describing the setting. “Here I am, and Sam (Snead) would have been there, and (Gene) Sarazen was there. Byron (Nelson), of course, and Jack (Nicklaus) and Arnold (Palmer) and Gary (Player). My goodness. I was just wandering around, and you completely feel like a little schoolboy. You’re a little embarrassed schoolboy in a class of Masters scholars.
“I really did feel that way. Wow! … I think that’s all I could say, I said something along those lines, I’m not sure I quite belong here.’ But it’s quite a feeling.”
Now Faldo can play the role of wily veteran who watches some other young player sweat it out beneath the bright spotlight of one of the game’s most high-profile gatherings. Two-time champion Ben Crenshaw took over for the late Nelson as serving as the night’s unofficial host each year. Champions receive a $10,000 honorarium from the tournament just for attending, but the experience itself is far more rich than any check.
This week’s champions’ gathering will be quite emotional, as it will be the first time since 1959 that the dinner has been conducted without Arnold Palmer in the room. Palmer, who died in September at the age of 87, attended last year’s dinner in Augusta. Two years ago, Palmer and the other champions each received a piece of the 17th hole’s Eisenhower Tree that was felled by a storm. Palmer had been close friends and played golf with Ike, and the keepsake set off an emotional speech from him about what it meant to be a professional golfer, and what it meant to be part of that room each April.
Palmer will be missed this week
Nobody who attended that night ever will forget it.
“It was very moving,” Faldo said. “Arnold got all choked up; they’d saved the first chunk of Eisenhower tree for him. It’s sweet and it’s sad. You get more emotional as we get older, and you realize what you’ve done, and what you’ve got, and what you had. Your gratitude, I guess. I mean, he was a real ‘gratitude’ man, wasn’t he, grateful for what he had.
“That was emotional. I think it (tonight’s dinner) will be even more emotional. I hope they ask everybody to go around the table and tell an Arnold story. I think that could be unbelievable. I think we should just make that a tradition.”
What story would Faldo share? Here goes:
“My sweet one was when Jack made me honoree at Memorial a couple of years ago,” said Faldo, who was honored at Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village in Ohio in 2015. “You’ve seen the picture, I’m sitting there with Arnold. Arnold came in, and you’ve got Jack and Arnold sitting next to each other, and they glanced and looked at each other. It was right.
Now serving: Jack Nicklaus Ice Cream
“Jack looked at Arnold and said, ‘Are you all right?’ And Arnold looked at Jack and said (Faldo says this in a low, coarse voice), “Yeah, I’m all right.’ And I said it to his face, ‘(it) looked like you’re saying to yourself, Well, we don’t look like 30-year-olds now, do we? What’s happened? Where are we now?’ And I think I was right with that.
“So Arnold … that’s what I loved, their competitiveness. Arnold looks out the window and says, ‘Hey, Jack, it looks pretty green out there. I’ve never seen this place looking so green.’ So Jack goes straight into, ‘Yeah, we built a brand new clubhouse, we’re serving Jack Nicklaus wines, we’ve got Jack Nicklaus outerwear, we’ve got Jack Nicklaus sunglasses, we’ve got Jack Nicklaus ice cream …”
“And a waiter comes over, and he says to Arnold, ‘Can I get you a drink?’ And Arnold looked at Jack and said, ‘I’ll have an Ar-nold Pal-mer.’ … I thought, isn’t that great? They’re 80 years old (Nicklaus is 77), and they’re still going at it.”
Ben Hogan began the tradition of the Champions Dinner at Augusta National in 1952. When Player, now 81, attended his first dinner in 1961, Hogan sat to his left. Horton Smith, who won the very first Augusta National Invitation Tournament in 1934 (the event wouldn’t become the Masters until later) was in attendance that evening, as were so many of the greats from that day. Smith had a promising junior he’d been mentoring back home, and to encourage the lad, he had an idea: he’d get all the Masters champions to sign a book for the junior.
Autographs aplenty these days
All the champions signed, and it got around to Player, and he signed it and then placed it directly in front of Hogan. Hogan stood up from his chair, obviously fuming. Player continues the tale:
“Who passed this God-damned book up here?” Hogan said loudly, slamming the book down on his table for effect. The room suddenly became silent. “So Horton Smith says, ‘Ben, I did.’ He (Hogan) says, ‘Horton, this is the Masters dinner. The Masters club. This is not a God-damn autograph-session club. Don’t you ever do that again!”
Player laughed as he retold the story, because he knew exactly what lay ahead for his dinner on Tuesday evening.
“It’s all autographs,” Player said. “Every menu is sent around, all the flags for charities, which is fine. It’s a change.
“But my first time winning it, and sitting at that table in that room, with all those champions? Man, it was an honor.”
Willett realizes that champions will want to celebrate the life of Arnold Palmer on Tuesday, a man so integral to the Masters. Willett will keep his tribute simple, saying a few words and then asking the room to raise a glass of Palmer’s favorite drink, Ketel One, in a toast to the King.
“I think that will go down quite nicely this evening,” he said.