Dinner for Masters winners is a Tuesday night tradition
Of all the enduring gifts left by Ben Hogan’s golf legacy, the Masters Club might be the most cherished and unlikely.
Hogan was so antisocial that he made sure the house he built didn’t have a guest bedroom. Yet it was “The Hawk” who suggested and played host to the inaugural Champions Dinner in 1952 after his first victory the year before.
“At that time there weren’t many champions,” two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw said. “One of his stipulations was to have the champion pay for the dinner. It’s gotten quite expensive now. I think there were 26 of us last year. But you’re only too happy to do it. You get to set the menu. It wasn’t much in Hogan’s day when he started it.”
There were 11 attendees at the first dinner April 4, 1952 – nine of the 11 Masters winners plus honorary members Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts.
Tonight, defending champion Bubba Watson will pick up the tab for as many as 30 other green-jacketed guests, including Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne. After being the host two years ago, Watson is better prepared for the protocol than he was in 2013.
“They don’t give you any clue what goes on at the Champions Dinner; you just show up,” Watson said. “On Tuesday, I asked the locker room attendant, I said, ‘What time am I supposed to show up? Nobody’s told me a time.’ So they tell you a time, roughly, between this time. I’m like, ‘What do you mean, roughly? I just show up?’ So you think it’s going to be more structured, but it’s not.”
At least one thing is easier for the defending champion – he knows to sit at the head of the table between the chairman and the Masters Club host, Crenshaw. Going back the second year is a little trickier and a bit like trying to fit in at the school cafeteria. There is no set seating list, but routines have established patterns through the years.
“My first when I was just sitting with the ‘normal people’ was I guess ’09,” said 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson. “I asked Larry Mize and Bernhard Langer where I could sit, and they said just park it right here. I was next to Billy Casper.
“Last year, Bubba asked me and sat right next to me. I know since my first one I’ve changed in a four- or five-seat radius.”
Adam Scott – who treated the club to an extravagant menu last year – will have to find a place to park himself at the table.
“I don’t really know where I go,” he said. “It will be a whole new experience this year. I’ll probably be down the far end. It’s pretty heavy hitting where I was last year.”
Crenshaw is the constant. He took over in the Texas lineage as host in 2006 from Byron Nelson, who served in the role from 1956-2005. Hogan acted as host through the first four dinners, two of them as defending champion.
“It means so much to a Texan because Byron, Hogan, Jack Burke and Jimmy Demaret were all Texas icons,” Crenshaw said of the role he’ll keep even after retiring from competition after this year’s tournament.
Crenshaw said he tries to “tread very lightly” in his role, in which he opens the dinner and later presents the reigning champion with a gold medal and introduces him for a speech.
“I always search for reasons to tell people why we’re there,” Crenshaw said. “Obviously, we’ve had success in getting into that room. Some of the older champions went through as much as a lot of us went through – the emotions and playing the course and the situations they were in. All of the younger champions always want to speak to the older ones to know what they went through. That’s in terms of clubs and yardage and what happened and who did you chase down – that’s basically what the dinner is. We never want to lose focus of that because basically it is a get-together of all the champions.”
The conversation has changed since the days when Nelson would blush at Sam Snead’s bawdy jokes. Fuzzy Zoeller is usually good for a laugh, and Phil Mickelson is often a surprising source of unintentional humor.
“I love his wit – he’s almost too smart for his own good,” Johnson said of the three-time champion. “He’s the king of useless information.”
A portion of the night is often spent signing autographs for one another because it’s such a rare collection of most of the game’s greatest icons.
“From a golfing standpoint it’s the best night of the year, without a shadow of a doubt,” Immelman said. “Just to have the opportunity to be in that room with all these great legends of the game and guys I grew up watching and rooting for.”
HOW IT STARTED
Ben Hogan wrote a letter to Augusta National Chairman Clifford Roberts inviting him to a dinner for previous winners, and the Masters Club was born.
The first Champions Dinner was held Friday, April 4, 1952, at Augusta National’s clubhouse.
Nine Masters champions – Horton Smith, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Henry Picard, Jimmy Demaret, Craig Wood, Claude Harmon, Sam Snead and Hogan – attended the inaugural dinner.
Past champions Ralph Guldahl and Herman Kaiser did not attend the Masters that year.
According to The Augusta Chroniclearchives, the new club’s first official act was to make honorary members of Roberts and Bobby Jones, Augusta National’s president.
JUST A TASTE