They gather once a year, clad in green and cloaked in mystery,
members of the most exclusive society within golf's most
secretive club. On Tuesday night of tournament week, two days
before play begins, the Masters Club convenes in Augusta
National's clubhouse for what is commonly known as the past
champions' dinner. The food is good and the price is right, but
it is the company that makes this evening unique. The only way
to earn an invitation is to win golf's most prestigious
tournament, no small feat considering that there have been more
U.S. presidents (42) than Masters champions (39). To get the
inside scoop on a dinner that no outsider has ever crashed,
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED interviewed 15 of the 29 living Masters
winners. Most echo Byron Nelson, the 1937 and '42 champ, who
calls the event the highlight of his year. "I don't know if it's
the most exclusive dinner in the world," says Nelson, who has
been at every one since the first, in 1952, "but when you're in
that room, it sure feels like it."
This is an article from the April 5, 1999 issue
The evening begins with cocktails in the Masters Club Room, the
second-floor locker room and lounge reserved for past champs.
There's an open bar, but Bob Goalby, the 1968 champion, says,
"I've never seen anyone get drunk. Most of the guys control it
well." No such moderation is exercised when it comes to the
olives that are brought in for the occasion. Light green in
color and nearly as big as golf balls, the olives are the
lasting legacy of Clifford Roberts, the eccentric cofounder of
the tournament, who procured them from a secret source. "Those
olives are absolutely the most delicious thing on earth," says
Fuzzy Zoeller, the 1979 winner. "Arnold [Palmer, 1958, '60, '62
and '64] and I usually have a contest to see who can put more of
Appetizers, usually in the same gastronomic genre as the entree
selected by the host champion, are also served. The barbecue
dinner of three years ago chosen by Ben Crenshaw (1984, '95) was
preceded by trays of appetizers garnished with jalapeno peppers.
"For those less familiar with jalapenos," says Crenshaw,
swallowing a grin, "I guess they look like pickles. Well, Jack
[Nicklaus, 1963, '65, '66, '72, '75 and '86] picked up a big one
and popped it in before any of us could stop him. I will tell
you, he was hurtin'. There was sweat pouring off of him. Hord
Hardin [the former tournament chairman] did the same thing."
At 7:30 p.m. sharp the players pose for the annual group photo,
younger champions in front, older ones in the back. They then
move next door to the library, where dinner is served. Lined
with vintage books and dignified portraits, the library is a
regal setting, enhanced by its sweeping views of the course. The
door that leads into the room is emblazoned with the Augusta
National seal, about waist-high. "Every year Sam [Snead, 1949,
'52 and '54] comes through that door and kicks the seal," says
Goalby. "About 10 years ago he came through and said, 'Oh, the
old man can't do it anymore.' Gary [Player, 1961, '74 and '78]
said, 'Mon, I never thought I'd see the day when the great Sambo
couldn't kick that door seal.' So Palmer says, 'I'll bet $100 he
can kick it if he tries again.' Sam went back out and kicked it
just like raising your hand. I know Arnold and Sam split that
hundred of Gary's."
Inside the library there is only one large, rectangular table.
The place settings are in white china, bordered in green, with
seven pieces of silver per. Three gentlemen are seated at the
head of the table--the current champ, the tournament director
(the only mortal allowed) and Nelson, who for as long as anyone
can remember has been a jovial master of ceremonies. There is no
formal seating arrangement for the rest of the group. Once the
champions are seated, dinner is promptly served. "As you might
imagine, the service is good," says Nelson.
Most of the existing lore about the Masters Club involves the
menu selected by the reigning champion, because this is the only
information Augusta National makes public. It is unclear when
this tradition started. "When I had my dinner," says Doug Ford
(1957), "there wasn't all this bull. They just gave you a couple
of entrees. I usually had spaghetti and meatballs." In the 1980s
and early '90s, when the Masters was dominated by international
players, the dinner selections became increasingly exotic, as
the hosts began serving dishes from their respective homelands.
The most celebrated meal was that chosen by Sandy Lyle (1988),
haggis, a Scottish delicacy consisting of the heart, liver,
lungs and kidneys of a sheep, cooked in the animal's stomach.
Turned out in his kilt, Lyle pulled a dagger from its sheath and
performed the ceremonial stabbing of the haggis to kick off the
meal. Only the intrepid Tommie Aaron (1973) and Zoeller have
admitted trying the haggis. No one went hungry, however. Every
year a limited selection of entrees from the club's regular menu
are offered in addition to the host champion's choices. Good
thing, too, because at this year's dinner Mark O'Meara is
serving sashimi and sushi as an appetizer. Not trusting Augusta
National's kitchen staff, O'Meara is borrowing a sushi chef from
the Tokyo Sports Network, which flies one in from Japan every
year to prepare meals for its staff.
If importing a cook sounds like a hassle, try cooking an entire
meal in Texas and then serving it in Georgia. That's what
happened when Crenshaw decided he had to have his barbecue from
his favorite spot, the Salt Lick, a greasy spoon near his
hometown of Austin. What followed was an operation that made the
Berlin airlift look modest by comparison.
"The folks at Augusta were friendly enough, but it was clear
from the git-go that we weren't welcome in their kitchen," says
Harry Collins, the Salt Lick's general manager. "They wouldn't
even let us drive our truck in and set up in the parking lot. So
the only option was to cook it, freeze it, Cryovac it and FedEx
it. All they had to do was heat it up and add the sauce."
If only it were that simple. The day before the dinner, Collins
got a call from the National wondering why the food hadn't
arrived. It turned out that FedEx had somehow misplaced the
shipment. This was a particularly acute problem because the Salt
Lick was closed on Mondays. Showing the will of a champion,
Collins assembled his staff and produced a duplicate order: 45
pounds of ribs, 30 pounds of sausage, 25 pounds of brisket,
mountains of coleslaw, potato salad and beans, and 60 14-ounce
bottles of sauce, all lovingly packed in a dozen 30-quart
coolers with dry ice. This batch was shipped without a glitch,
and when the original order finally turned up, it, too, was
heated up and served. The mass quantities of Q was not a
problem. Among the Masters champs, a crowd that skews
disproportionately toward good ol' boys, Crenshaw's meal is
spoken of in the sort of reverential tones usually reserved for
Ben Hogan anecdotes.
Hogan (1951 and '53), it turns out, populates many of the
old-timers' recollections about the early days of the Masters
Club. It is no small irony that he, the most antisocial of men,
dreamed up the club and spearheaded its formation. As a result,
he was compelled to act as the first master of ceremonies.
"Hogan was one of the best speakers I ever heard, but he had to
be prepared," says Gay Brewer Jr. (1967). "He wouldn't get up
and make a speech at the dinner unless he had something
prepared." Just because it was his night didn't prevent the Hawk
from showing his talons. Recalls Ford, "One dinner we asked
Hogan to join the Senior tour, and he said, 'Fellows, my game is
not for public view anymore.' After the meal Goalby said, 'I'm
going to try once more.' So he said, 'Ben, we really need you.'
Hogan hit the goddam table and said, 'Bob, I told you my game is
not for public view!' That was the end of that conversation."
Hogan being Hogan, he inexplicably stopped coming to the dinners
over time (Cary Middlecoff, 1955, and Jackie Burke, '56, were
the only other regular absentees), and Nelson stepped in to run
the show. To this day, Lord Byron gets up following the meal and
tosses out a few little-known facts about the tournament that
never fail to impress his audience. "You want to know my
secret?" Nelson asks conspiratorially. "I had Bill Inglish [the
late Masters statistician] slip me a few itty-bitty tidbits in
advance." Nelson then presents the host champion with a gold
locket, about 1 1/2 inches long and shaped in the club's famous
logo, inscribed with the player's name and the year he won the
tournament on the outside and an etching of the clubhouse
inside. With that, the player is formally inducted into the club
and expected to say a few words. Men who have the courage to
hole heroic 140-foot chip shots with the world watching suddenly
come down with a case of the nerves. Says Larry Mize (1987),
"There is no possible way to describe what it feels like to
stand up and look down that table and see all those famous faces
looking back at you. I have to admit, I got a little tongue-tied."
Over desert the conversation flows like the fine port from the
National's wine cellar. "We don't do much in there but talk
about golf and laugh about when I beat your ass at such-and-such
tournament," says Goalby. A popular subject, because the
tournament director is present, is course conditions. Says
Goalby, "Most of the changes in the course and the tournament
come out of suggestions from the dinner." However, not every
piece of advice gets the desired response. Years ago some of the
players were complaining about the severity of the 3rd green.
Says Nelson, "Bob [Jones] had finally heard enough. He said,
'You boys make me sick. You think you have to birdie every
single hole. I recall that when I was playing, par was still a
pretty good score.'"
Jones, who founded the Masters in 1934, came to every dinner
until his death in 1971, and though he was far removed from his
playing days, he remained a commanding presence. "Even in that
room he was held in awe," says Nelson. "You know, he was a
lawyer and a highly intelligent man, and he had such a command
of the English language. We didn't ask many questions of Bob.
Mostly we just listened."
By dinner's end, usually around 10, the players again find
themselves listening, waiting for Snead to perform his annual
ritual. "Snead always tears it up with some foul joke at the end,
and that's when it's time to leave," says Billy Casper (1970).
None of the past champs are politically incorrect enough to
supply examples of Snead's hillbilly humor. "Not for your ears,
baby," says Zoeller. "That's a man's deal, not for mixed
company." When we caught up with Snead at the recent Legends of
Golf, he unveiled this year's joke: "This guy bought himself a
big Mercedes-Benz, and he's going 90 miles per hour when he
looks in the rearview mirror and sees a cop," says the great
Sambo. "He says to himself, 'I'll show that fella,' and he steps
on it and gets going 125. But the cop is still gaining on him,
so he pulls over. The cop comes up and says, 'I am so tired from
writing tickets today that if you can give me one good reason
why I shouldn't give you a ticket, I won't.' The guy says,
'Well, one of you guys ran off with my wife, and I thought you
were bringing her back.'" Bah-duh-boom.
As the players go groaning into the night, there's only one last
bit of business to attend to. The host champ is obliged to pick
up the check. There is very little complaining. "I would've paid
a million bucks if I had to," says Zoeller. "That night is