Dinner of Champions

Words: Mark Horyna
Illustration: Rosie Giles

A brief history of Augusta National and the Masters Club.

“Sergio, Noooooo!” – Clemens’ howl is ear-piercingly loud and comes from deep within. The neighbours must think we’ve gone completely mad, especially as this isn’t the first time one of us has screamed the Spaniard’s name tonight. It’s way past midnight on the 10th of April 2017, and on the huge TV screen illuminating the room Sergio Garcia, one of the best golfers “never to have won a major” has just missed the relatively short putt that would have won him the Masters. We have been here for hours. Glued to our seats, eating, drinking and nervously watching every shot of a nearly perfect round in far away Augusta. Garcia will now face his playing partner Justin Rose in a sudden-death playoff.

Clemens jumps up and storms out of the living room, while I pick at some leftovers on a nearby plate. A few moments later he is back, struggling with the cork of an expensive bottle of Rioja. On the 18th, Rose slices his tee shot into the trees and then tops his recovery shot from off the pine needles. Sergio, on the other hand, seems unfazed. Before we have even said ‘cheers’, it’s over. As Rose misses a long putt, leaving Garcia two shots for the title, Clemens looks at me with bloodshot eyes and asks: “What do you think he’ll serve at next year’s Champions Dinner?”

Every year in April, the eyes of the golfing world turn expectantly toward the small Georgian town of Augusta, where since 1934 the game’s youngest major championship has been staged: The Masters.
Just off Washington Road, hidden behind dense lines of trees, lie the green and pleasant fairways of Augusta National, arguably one of the world’s most exclusive private golf clubs. In spite of its youth, Augusta, as Jack Nicklaus once said, “exudes more history and is home to more ghosts than any other American golfing Mecca”. The event and place itself are seeped in treasured traditions and strange peculiarities. Here, the winner receives a green jacket, spectators are called patrons, and there’s an odd par-3 event on the Wednesday before the main tournament. Caddies are required to wear white overalls, and just about everything else you can think of is coloured green. Sandwich wrappers, coffee cups and beer containers. Green.
The place is meticulously prepared for the event with plants lining the fairways (Pink Dogwood, Junipers, Azaleas), having been brought to bloom by carefully monitored manipulation. The grass at Augusta always seems greener, healthier and far more succulent than anywhere else in the world. This place is a golfer’s dream come true. And for those of us who dwell in the Northern Hemisphere, the first major of the year marks the true beginning of our golfing season. Even the laziest will grab their clubs and head out to the range once the tournament comes around.

Like a starting gun being fired, The Masters kicks us out of hibernation.

The course and club are the brainchild of legendary amateur Bobby Jones who, after achieving everything a golfer could have dreamt of, shockingly retired from competitive play in 1930 at the age of 28.
Dr. Alister MacKenzie – then one of the most sought-after golf architects – was asked to map out a course on the defunct 365 acre Augusta ‘Fruitland-Nursery’. He and Jones drew up plans for a routing with wide fairways and huge undulating greens. Augusta National was intended to demand the same excellent shot-making abilities as the Old Course in St Andrews.

In the midst of the worst economic crisis ever, Jones, Mackenzie and Augusta co-founder Clifford Roberts (a Wall Street stockbroker, and soon to become the mastermind behind the Masters Tournament) went to work. Their vision of an exclusive private club was untimely and a huge financial risk – The Great Depression was taking its toll and clubs were closing all around the country. And although Augusta was constructed in only two years, things were, and stayed, difficult. The club desperately needed publicity and new members. Hence the idea of a new tournament was born: a tournament to attract the best golfers and introduce the world to this great place in the South.
Roberts felt that, if the legendary Jones would invite and compete, the world would surely come. And although the great amateur was at first reluctant and his performance at the inaugural event lagged well behind expectations (he finished 13th), Jones’ comeback did the job. The 1934 ‘First Invitational at Augusta National’ received excellent reviews and was an immediate success with spectators. The legend of Augusta National was born; the rest is history.

As if trying to compensate for its youth, the tournament has piled quirky new tradition onto tradition since the start. It has fabricated more idiosyncrasies than any other golf event we can think of. Among them, the aforementioned par-3 tournament (since 1960), with the peculiar skipping-the-ball-over-the-pond-at-the-16th; all that rather tasteless crystal awarded for all sorts of minor achievements; the ceremonial opening tee shot; and the green jacket, regarded by some to be the most legendary prize in all of sport.

And then, of course, there is the wonderful Champions Dinner: a get-together of golfing goliaths on the eve of the event. Surprisingly, golf’s most exclusive dinner club was originally the idea of a man not exactly famous for his social skills, or for his love of parties.
Ben Hogan was better known for his self-discipline, work ethic, ice-cold competitiveness and his fantastically reliable, powerful swing. Even today, it is widely believed that he was one of the best ball-strikers of all time. During an extraordinary career, Hogan won 64 times, including 9 major victories. He co-wrote the highly influential instruction book Five Lessons, and established his own equipment company. In 1951 Hollywood made the bio-pic Follow the Sun starring Glen Ford, based on the golfer’s life.

‘The Hawk’, as Hogan was called, proposed his idea of a get-together to Clifford Roberts, Club Chairman at Augusta, after winning his first green jacket in 1951. All previous winners attending the tournament were to be invited to a ‘Stag night’ in the clubhouse. Hogan, as reigning champion, offered to pick up the tab. Everybody was to wear their green “coats”, as Hogan put it. Roberts and Bobby Jones, who were also on the guest list, welcomed the idea and on Friday April 4th 1952, the first Champions Dinner was held.

Eight previous champions accepted the invitation, among them such illustrious players as inaugural winner Horton Smith, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. On this successful first night, further rules were agreed upon. The gathering was officially to be called the Masters Club, the meeting was to be held annually, and both Roberts and Jones were invited to be Honorary Members.

Hogan soon added another rule: after realising how expensive an idea this was, he proposed that the reigning champion should pay for the evening. Only two years later – after winning his second green jacket in 1953 – it would, however, be his turn to pick up the tab again. Such is golf.
Hogan hosted the first four events as emcee until Byron Nelson took over in 1956, and held the position until 2005. His successor Ben Crenshaw has been at the helm since 2006. The emcee typically opens the Club evening with some words of welcome introducing the newest member, who will then give his opening speech. Having to give this speech in front of some of the biggest legends of the game can leave some champions worried, or as Nick Faldo once put it, “embarrassed and in awe!” Zach Johnson described his first night as “fun, nerve-wracking, exciting and surreal.” After the speeches and the food, the new member of the Club is awarded a small golden locket as a sign of his membership.

From the founding event until the mid-1980s, the Masters Club chose its meals from Augusta’s club menu. It was only then that the currently practised custom was agreed upon – today, the reigning champion not only gets to pick up the tab, but also chooses the food, which in most cases is prepared by the club’s kitchen staff.
Of the 81 events held until 2017, Americans have won 59. So throughout its history, the Masters Club has seen a lot of steaks, fries and pasta, grilled chicken and greens. But with Caddie being an international publication, it goes without saying that we took a closer look at what the non-American champions served. Surprisingly, most of them have been great ambassadors for their national or regional cuisine. Some choices have been witty, some very tongue-in-cheek and others more risky. But most menus sound like a meal you’d really like to be invited to.
One of the first champions to present his own menu at the Masters Club was Bernhard Langer in 1986.

The only German to ever win a green jacket is well-known for his strict fitness regime and is today one of the most dominant players on the ‘Champions Tour’. Langer dismissed the many German specialties his national cuisine had to offer and instead chose an Austrian dish, ‘Wiener schnitzel’ (veal in breadcrumbs) as a main, then presented the Masters Club with a ‘Black Forest Gateau’ for dessert. On returning eight years later, the second-time winner served turkey with dressing, but stuck with the tried-and-tested cake.

Scotsman Sandy Lyle wore a kilt to the 1989 Masters Club, where he raised one or two eyebrows by serving a traditional Scottish ‘haggis’ accompanied by mashed potatoes and turnips as part of his menu. For those unacquainted with Scottish cuisine, haggis is an authentic speciality made of minced sheep lungs, heart and liver – mixed with oatmeal, then cooked in a sheep’s stomach. It’s absolutely delicious, but might be called an acquired taste.
Englishman and three-time champion (Sir) Nick Faldo stayed very down-to-earth on all occasions and offered three simple British menus, serving Shepherd’s pie in 1990, steak and kidney pie in 1991 and – last but not least – fish and chips in 1997 (commemorating his victory over the ‘The Great White Shark’).

1997 saw the youngest Masters champion of all time (21 years and 104 days old on the day he won) with a victory by Tiger Woods. One year later Tiger hosted his first of four Masters Club evenings. Woods’ first victory in Augusta had been overshadowed by a stupidly racist remark made by former Masters champion Fuzzy Zoeller, who, when asked what he thought of Woods’ startlingly strong game, couldn’t constrain himself and blurted “Enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve!” Fittingly, the young champion took the idiot’s advice and went with a rather unconventional but well-loved choice of food: he served cheeseburgers, french fries and milkshakes to the gathered crowd. Zoeller, who had since apologised for his derogative comment, attended the evening and afterwards said that the burgers had been delicious, whereas octogenarian champion Byron Nelson remarked he was “happy with Woods’ choice” as he “never got anything like that at home”. Woods went on to serve a conservative steak meal in 2002, sushi and chicken in 2003, and Mexican fajitas in 2006.
In 2001 the time came for ‘The Big Fijian’ Vijay Singh to invite. Singh, who would later say that winning the Masters in 2000 was his proudest moment in golf, served a mouth-watering Thai-style menu.

Canadian Champion Mike Weir hosted the event in 2004 and served a choice of lobster, wild boar, salmon, salads, chicken, asparagus and, as a main, Wapiti elk – something we trust isn’t usually found on the club menu at Augusta.
One of the most discussed menus was brought on by Charl Schwarztel from South Africa in 2012. While most courses on Schwarztel’s menu were agreeable for the majority of champions, some might have stumbled over his choice for the main course: Boerewors (a traditional South African sausage) with monkey-gland sauce.
Long-hitting Angel Cabrera invited the former winners to an Argentinean barbecue feast in 2010. For the Argentinean, nicknamed ‘El Pato’ (the duck) for reasons not quite clear, the 2009 Masters was his second major title. Angel’s choice of meat included chorizo, beef, short ribs and Argentinean blood sausage.

In 2013 Adam Scott was the first Australian to ever win The Masters, defeating 2009 champion Angel Cabrera in a playoff. Scott’s countryman Greg Norman had come close in 1996, only to tragically collapse in one of golf’s greatest ever meltdowns, leading to Nick Faldo’s third title. Scott gave the Masters Club a personal touch by serving a pavlova made from his Mum’s recipe. His stylish main meal choice of Australian wagyu beef with Moreton Bay bugs, sauteed spinach and onion-cream mashed potatoes makes us wish we could have been there.
The second Englishman to ever win the Masters, Danny Willet, served a traditional English roast with Yorkshire pudding in 2017. The first Masters Club to take place after Arnold Palmer’s death saw the attendees toast with a so-called ‘Arnold Palmer’, the iced-tea-and-lemonade mixed drink made famous by the ‘King of Golf’.

And Sergio? Well, one can’t really be sure, but only a few days after his playoff victory, Garcia beamingly hinted at his choice in an interview: “It’s definitely going to be a typical Spanish dish. It’s going to be delicious, I can tell you that, and it’s going to be one of my favourite dishes in Spain. I’m sure that people will be thrilled with it.”

Well, we do hope so.