History of the Masters Champions Dinner
THE Champions Dinner is one of the great pre-tournament traditions at The Masters, although there will be those who turned up in 1989 and did a double-take when defending champion Sandy Lyle’s choice was haggis, turnip and mashed potato. Lyle, a proud Scot, was happy to serve his national dish while wearing a kilt. The reason he was able to do was that, as champion, he was given the privilege of selecting the menu. This year that honour goes to Sergio Garcia.
A total of 33 former champions attend the dinner on the Tuesday night before the action gets under way, with the oldest guest expected to be 95-year-old Doug Ford, who won The Masters in 1957.
The tradition began in 1952, when Ben Hogan invited his fellow past champs to join him for a meal. With nine of 11 surviving winners in attendance, Hogan pitched the idea of starting a "Masters club" that would be limited to Green Jacket winners, past, present and future. Thereafter, the exclusive group has staged a dinner, where members share loads of stories and laughs.
Gary Player still recalls 1962, when, shortly after taking a seat at the table, Horton Smith, who'd won the inaugural Augusta National Invitation Tournament in 1934, passed around a menu for everyone to sign. He intended to gift it to a junior golfer he'd been mentoring.
"I signed and passed it to Mr. Hogan," Player said. "The next thing I heard was those powerful hands slamming down on the wooden table, rattling the glasses and silverware. 'What the hell is this?' Mr. Hogan exclaimed. 'This is the Masters Champions Dinner, not a goddamn autograph session.'"
Today, everyone at the table exchanges menus, flags and other memorabilia to be signed for various charities. Last year, at the first dinner since Arnold Palmer's passing, several members kicked off the night by sharing personal memories of the King. Defending champions not only choose the menu, but they are also expected to pay the bill.
In 1986, Germany's Bernhard Langer served schnitzel and spaetzle. In 1991, England's Nick Faldo dished out shepherd's pie. In 1998, Tiger Woods offered burgers and fries, and Texan Jordan Spieth served brisket-and-ribs in 2016.
Ahead of the 2001 Masters, Vijay Singh, from Fiji, decided to push the boat out. He brought in husband-and-wife Charlie and Nan Niyomkul, owners of Atlanta's Nan Thai Fine Dining.
"Vijay and I used to have long talks about the Masters dinner. We are foreigners, so we didn't know much about it," said Charlie, who grew up 200 miles from Bangkok. "Vijay said, 'I don't care. When I win, you and Nan are going to come and introduce everyone to Thai food.’"
And Augusta National handed over its kitchen to Charlie and Nan. It proved to be a nervous time for the couple. “We didn’t sleep for a week," Charlie says. “Imagine it, Jack Nicklaus is going to eat a meal cooked by us. It's unbelievable."
It turned out to be one of the most popular Champions Dinners ever served at Augusta. It featured chicken panang curry, sea scallops in garlic sauce and Chilean sea bass with a spicy glaze. Initially, Nicklaus and Palmer placed orders with the grillroom. But they soon tucked in.
"You know my diet and healthy-choice approach," Player said. "I didn't usually eat spicy dishes, but I really enjoyed Vijay's selection."
At the end of the night, the Niyomkuls were called from the kitchen. Byron Nelson stood up and declared it the best Champions Dinner in 50 years. And then every single one of those present stood up and gave the chefs a standing ovation.
Word of their triumph soon spread and their business could barely cope with the demand. A few weeks later, Nelson rang Nan Thai Fine Dining. That night, he and his wife, Peggy, flew from Dallas to Atlanta just to eat at their restaurant.
You will not be especially surprised to learn that in the aftermath of Lyle’s victory there was no spike in haggis sales in Augusta.
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