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The Champions Dinner conundrum: Where do I sit?

Champions Dinner at the 2017 Masters Tournament. (Augusta National)
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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Bubba Watson mulled nervously in a relatively nondescript room tucked into a corner of the iconic Augusta National clubhouse.

Watson was two years removed from his first Masters victory in 2012, and even though this was his second Champions Dinner he found himself asking a familiar, and awkward, question – where do I sit?

For a place with as much tradition as Augusta National, the Champions Dinner – which was originally called the Masters Club when Ben Hogan hosted the first gathering in 1952 – has a surprisingly relaxed seating format.

In 2013, Watson hosted the dinner as the defending champion, offering a menu that included Caesar salad, grilled chicken breast, green beans, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.

As the host of the dinner, Watson sat between Billy Payne, the club’s chairman, who is the only member of the Masters Club who has not won the tournament, and Ben Crenshaw, who has become the evening’s de facto emcee, at the head of the table. But the year after hosting is when things get a little interesting.

Although there’s no assigned seating at the dinner, there is a generally understood hierarchy. The head of the table includes the chairman, now Fred Ridley, the defending champion and Crenshaw.

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“I asked Zach Johnson, ‘What do I do? Where do people sit?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, but sit by me,’” Watson recalled. “There are a few seats, three or four, they sit in the same area, you can pick the names. They sit where they sit and you just kind of fill in.

“For me, being a young guy, I let everyone sit down and I figured it out from there. I stand back and let everybody go.”

How the table fills in for the game’s most exclusive soiree is something of an evolving tradition.

“You sit up at the head the first year when you host, and then the next year, you're like, it's jostle for a seat,” Adam Scott said. “Basically, the head half of the table is the same seats every year. No one is touching [Tom] Watson, Jack [Nicklaus], Tiger [Woods], Ben [Crenshaw], Arnold [Palmer] was up there, [Phil] Mickelson, he's kind of mid-point.”

Which makes a champion’s sophomore turn at the dinner something of a lottery.

Scott, like Watson, lingered the year after he hosted the dinner in 2014, waiting for everyone to take their seats before Angel Cabrera and Jose Maria Olazabal pulled the Australian to their side of the table.

Nick Faldo, who won back-to-back Masters in 1989 and ’90, made a point of finding a spot next to Sam Snead following his years of hosting.

“I tried to get close to Sam, that was really cool,” Faldo said. “Sam would say, ‘They hated me because I holed every putt, and I did.’”

Faldo has since settled between Gary Player and Trevor Immelman, “our tradition,” he smiled proudly.

“There’s no rules, it’s a free-for-all, pretty much,” Bubba Watson said. “There’s a pecking order. You let the greats of the game sit first and then you fill in after that.”

The veteran members of the club normally step in to help the uninitiated find a spot at the massive table. Bernhard Langer and Larry Mize guided Johnson the year after he hosted and Mark O’Meara helped Scott find a seat.

Last year it was Johnson who helped Jordan Spieth, who hosted the dinner in 2016.

“I didn’t know what the protocol was, so they just kind of helped me, sit with us, do this, don’t do that,” Johnson said. “So, Jordan [Spieth] asked me last year. It’s awkward, you’re used to hosting and if you’re not hosting you don’t know what to do.”

But then last year’s dinner was different for a number of reasons, the most glaring being the absence of Palmer, who died in September 2016. It was an emotional evening for all of the club members, particularly Crenshaw.

“What was really emotional was Arnold speaking the year before and then we reflected on what we’d heard, he was so much a part of the place,” Crenshaw said. “It’s just not the same.”

Crenshaw, who usually prepares some remarks and then opens the floor to whoever wants to speak, said Palmer will again be a topic on Tuesday following the King’s last dinner in 2016.

“Two years ago, when Arnold was there, he stood up and said his peace and it was phenomenal,” Johnson said. “You could tell it was significant.”

Most of the speaking is handled by the legends, with both Nicklaus and Player normally taking a few moments to reminisce along with Crenshaw.

This year’s dinner will also mark the first for chairman Fred Ridley, who took over for Payne last October. It’s tradition to give the defending champion a locket as the newest member of the Masters Club, and on Tuesday Ridley will also be welcomed into the group.

“It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. It’s a locket that opens three ways. It’s actually a necklace for your wife,” Crenshaw explained. “It’s a gold locket and you open it and it has a dark silhouette of the clubhouse and Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts and on the back it says, ‘Ben Hogan, founder of the Masters Club.’”

Welcoming two new members into the club will be somewhat out of the ordinary, but there will be one tradition that endures – Danny Willett, the 2016 champion, will spend the early part of the evening trying to figure out a familiar question – where do I sit?