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.”
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.”
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.”