Champions Dinner – select the menu and pay the tab
by M. James Ward
It’s been said the toughest ticket in sports is securing access to any of the four rounds during The Masters golf event. Guess again. There’s an even tougher ticket – which can’t be purchased – and only earned by one’s golf prowess.
Since 1952, the Augusta National Golf Club has set aside Tuesday evening as the time when all past green jacket recipients gather for the annual Champions Dinner. As the name states, the only way to join the club is win the event.
Two-time Masters winner Ben Hogan came up with the idea and on April 4, 1952 nine past winners broke bread with one another along with club founder Bobby Jones and Masters Chairman Clifford Roberts gathered. Ben Hogan served as the Masters club host for the first four years – twice after having won the event. In 1956, fellow Texan Byron Nelson took on the role and held it through 2005. Nelson was succeeded by fellow Lone Star State golfing star Ben Crenshaw – a two-time winner of the event.
The defending champion sits at the head of the table, with Masters club host on one side and the Chairman on the other – this year marks the ascensions of Fred Ridley to the position in replacing Billy Payne.
The defending champion has the honor in selecting the menu for the event and over the years there’s been a wide array of food choices. Tiger Woods, after winning the 1997 Masters at age 21, decided upon cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, French fries, strawberry and vanilla milkshakes and strawberry shortcake – a food staple common to young people.
Some of the choices can be a bit beyond the ordinary pallet. When Scottsman Sandy Lyle won the 1988 Masters, he dressed in full Scottish regalia with a kilt and selected the 1989 menu with a staple from his home country: haggis – minced sheep organs. Not exactly mouth watering for many. Although the immediate past winner does select the menu, it’s not unusual for those gathered to select regular food items off the main menu. While Lyle relished the haggis nearly everyone quickly searched the menu for more mouth-watering alternatives.
When Vijay Singh prepared the menu for the 2001 dinner he served chicken panang curry – a Thai-themed feast – that also included seafood Tom Kha, a Chilean sea bass with chilli, and a rack of lamb with yellow kari sauce that he asked the chef to make milder than usual to better appeal to the other guests.
The gathering marks an assemblage of golf’s royalty, stretching back in time. When Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus won their first Masters in 1958 and 1963 respectively, the likes of Gene Sarazen, Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan constituted the senior members. In the years to follow Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, golf's "big three" during the 1960's and collectively winners of thirteen Masters, would provide the continuity, linking the earliest days to a new generation of superstars. The story telling amongst the group is part of the lore of the game. The men who gather at the table are the ultimate insiders – knowing full well the meaning of competition and being able to possess what no person can ever buy – the green jacket.
Two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson remembers his first time as host and was nearly speechless when looking out over the group of fellow green jacket winners.
The seating arrangements are informal but generally the “junior” winners respect their older colleagues – seniority does have its privileges.
Crenshaw’s role is a simple one: welcome all present and then introduce the defending champion for a few words and present him with a gold medal for his success the year prior.
The overall feel of the gathering has also evolved. Until Gary Player won in 1961, no non-American had earned a green jacket. Now, the room is a good mixture of different parts of the world. Adam Scott in winning the 2013 event became the first Aussie to enter the Tuesday festivities.The only real public linkage comes from an official photo of those who gather. The Champion Dinner clearly has evolved from the idea that Hogan brought to light. The Masters has always been keen to celebrate the past achievements of former winners. Until 2004, past champions could play in the event regardless of age – the cut-off now is 65. The Tuesday gathering provides one of those rare moments when past and present are linked and celebrated. Sergio Garcia, last year’s winner, will now be part of that ongoing tradition by selecting the menu and springing from his pocket to pay for it. One can say with certainty it's one bill all golfers are more than happy to handle given the meaning of the evening.