The continuous evolution of the Champions Dinner

By Rex HoggardApril 5, 2016, 3:59 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – In official publications it’s referred to as the Masters Club, but to anyone with even a passing interest in golf it’s simply the Champions Dinner.

The club is limited to winners of the Masters and Augusta National’s chairman, who is granted a honorary membership, and the annual dining options – Angel Cabrera, for example, served grouper ceviche over plantain chips in 2010 – are the only real public glimpses most ever get into the Tuesday tradition, but last year’s Champions Dinner was different.

By all accounts, the annual gathering was transformed in 2015 from a largely understated affair into exactly what one would expect from the game’s most exclusive cocktail party.

“I’d only been to two, but it was very different from my first dinner where nothing was really said by anyone and it was just dinner and everyone left,” Adam Scott said. “But what broke the ice last year was a presentation was made to Arnold [Palmer] in the middle of the dinner and he felt he should speak and it was a very emotional speech.”

The presentation was a piece of the iconic Eisenhower tree on the 17th hole, which was lost in an ice storm in 2014.

Normally, Ben Crenshaw serves as the emcee of the event and he introduces the defending champion, who makes a few comments, followed by chairman Billy Payne who gives an overview of the club and any changes that may have been made since the previous year’s tournament.

Last year’s dinner, however, took an emotional turn when Palmer was persuaded to speak after being given his piece of Augusta National history.

“Arnold stood up and started speaking and you could tell it was straight from the heart. It was quite a special moment, really. It was pretty emotional and then he nudged Jack [Nicklaus] to get up and help him out,” Trevor Immelman said. “In the true spirit of those two, Jack was like, ‘Nah, you’re doing alright.’ It was a tremendous moment.”

Eventually, Palmer was followed by Tom Watson who then convinced Doug Ford, the 1957 winner and at 93 the oldest Masters champion, to speak.

“I wanted to have Doug Ford talk about the great shot that he hit, that the kids didn't know about,” Watson said. “The kids love that. They love stories like that. How did you win the Masters?  Everyone in that room has won the Masters, so they know how they did it. But it's always fun to listen to other players describe how they did it.”

Fuzzy Zoeller talked, or depending on who you ask, did a few minutes of standup, doling out jokes and entertaining anecdotes as only the 1979 champion can.

One by one, nearly every Masters legend spoke, but the impromptu moment began with Palmer, who announced last month he wouldn’t be hitting the ceremonial first tee shot on Thursday but did plan to attend the Champions Dinner.

“The significance of the tree is the remembrance of President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, a part of the history of Augusta,” Palmer said. “It was a very important part of the dinner, which was wonderful, with a lot of stories and so on ... and that was very special given my relationship with the former president.”


Photo gallery: What winners have served at recent Champions Dinners


With the exception of the defending champion, who is wedged between the chairman and the host (Crenshaw), seating for the event is largely on a first-come, first-serve basis, but there is a hierarchy.

“People get their spots and just stay there,” Immelman said. “Last year, [Adam] Scottie was kind of asking me where he should sit and I kind of dragged him down to our side on the far corner. Guys get familiar with their spot and they just kind of stay there.”

Immelman’s corner includes Gary Player, Nick Faldo and Charl Schwartzel, with Vijay Singh sitting across the table from Faldo.

Although that system leads to familiarity and a relaxed environment, in recent years it likely created a segmented atmosphere more suited to private conversations. It’s a dynamic that made last year’s dinner standout for many of the champions.

“More poignant would be the way I would describe it. More lively; the legends spoke up a little bit and there was some emotion and there was some laughter and sadness, but all in a positive way,” Zach Johnson said.

The dinner was started in 1952 by Ben Hogan, which is curious considering the Hawk’s aversion to small talk and social gatherings.

That first dinner included just 11 attendees, a number that grew to 30 last year, which is mildly concerning considering the defending champion picks up the tab, and normally lasts between two to three hours.

The difference last year was that no one wanted the event to end.

“After Arnold spoke, the stories started coming to just what you would picture that dinner to be,” Scott said. “It was fantastic, really great.”

Like everything else at Augusta National, the Champions Dinner continues to get better thanks to an emotional spark from Palmer, which also seems to be a spring tradition.

“Every year for me to be part of that is kind of goose bump kind of stuff,” Immelman said. “Every year it seems to get better and better and you kind of appreciate it a little more.”

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”



McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.