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Augusta's Traditions: Dinner among royalty

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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The famed spring fling known as the Masters, annually the most popular televised event in golf, begins April 7. Yet to absorb the complete spectacle of the place, nothing replaces wandering the grounds and soaking up the atmosphere. As an appetizer for those who have never crashed the Augusta National gates, we offer a few crumbs to nibble on until the opening round begins.

Leading up to the event, we'll be providing inside snapshots detailing what makes the event so special for those who have played in, won or attended the storied little invitational at the private club on Washington Road. Included are intimate places where access is extremely limited, as viewed by the players and past champions themselves.

Green jackets and simple green salads don't mix, apparently.

Past Masters champions gather the Tuesday before the tournament begins for an exclusive dinner. (Getty Images)  
Past Masters champions gather the Tuesday before the tournament begins for an exclusive dinner. (Getty Images)  
Every year at Augusta National, they appear at the lengthy dining table in all shapes and sizes, from portly to pint-sized, as in Stadler to Woosnam.

The august group has in common many things, including the monogrammed cutlery in each hand, but on the night of the Masters Club meeting, the green jackets are the tie that binds.

Better knows as the Champions Dinner, it has become as much a part of the lore for past Masters winners as the green jackets themselves, which are worn, along with a necktie, on the Tuesday night of tournament week.

They belly up to the long table in the Augusta National clubhouse, ready for a feast of the senses, both auditory and salivary. Sadly, as time passes on, so have many of the past Masters, so to speak, like Claude Harmon and Sam Snead.

"It's changed dramatically from 20 years ago," said Craig Stadler, the 1982 winner. "You don't have Claude or Sam telling jokes all night long. It's more businesslike now, but it's still a treat."

For those who have been attending as long as Stadler, they represent a bridge between the greatest in the game and the contemporary crop of stars, like multiple Masters winners Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

The dinner traces to 1952, when defending champion Ben Hogan hosted a dinner for previous winners and proposed the formation of the Masters Club, with a membership limited to past champions. At a club festooned with traditions, none is richer. Other elite tournaments have copied the dinner format -- including the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where past champions turn up in blue blazers -- but none is as well-attended.

"It's daunting, looking down that big, long table and it's 40-odd guys, filled with names you are familiar with, old and new," said 1988 champion Sandy Lyle. "It's Arnold, Gary, Jack. It's a one-of-a-kind gathering of those types of golfers."

Augusta's Traditions

It's a one-in-a-million feast, too.

It has become a culinary crapshoot. In some cases, you can drop the shoot portion of the latter word. Since the defending champion picks the menu items, Lyle, who lives in Scotland, served haggis as his Masters meal in '89 and has never lived it down. For the uninitiated, it's made from sheep innards and smells like roadkill.

"I don't think it will be served again," Lyle cracked.

God help the past champions if Boo Weekley ever wins, since the dude once ate a fried blackbird. Among the other cultural highlights served at the behest of past winners were cheeseburgers (Tiger Woods), Texas BBQ (Ben Crenshaw), Thai food (Vijay Singh), roasted elk (Mike Weir) and weiner schnitzel (Bernhard Langer).

But it's not about the grub. Before he died six years ago, Snead regaled the group with ribald jokes that generated as many groans as gut laughs. The Slammer's stories were so intentionally tasteless, it made Lyle's haggis seem edible.

While the ranks of the iconic players have thinned with the passing of Sarazen, Hogan, Snead and Nelson, there's still plenty of jaw-dropping talent at the dinner table.

"For a guy who used to wash cars at Mission Viejo Country Club, that's heady stuff," said Mark O'Meara, the 1998 champion. "I wouldn't open my mouth in front of those guys. I kept it pretty well shut.

"Deep down, I pretty much thought I'd never be there, or belonged there. To be included with those great champions, to see them and hear them, and to be in that historic clubhouse, I'm like, every time I go there, I am still blown away."

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