Welcome to the most exclusive locker room in golf, the champions' room at Augusta National. Renovated two years ago, the handsome but understated upstairs dressing area, officially known as the Masters Club Room, is off-limits to everyone but winners of the tournament and their guests.
There are 28 oak lockers assigned to the 37 champions, and the living share space with the ghosts. For example Jack Nicklaus, a six-time winner, doubles up with Horton Smith, winner of the first and third Masters. Ben Crenshaw, the defending champion, shares a locker with Jimmy Demaret, a three-time winner. Tom Watson and Claude Harmon are together on the same nameplate. Fred Couples is paired with Ralph Guldahl.
In this inner sanctum an inlay rug muffles the sound of cleats, and the chairs are upholstered in leather. The centerpiece of the 20-by-30-foot room is a floor-to-ceiling trophy case. A green jacket is draped around a mannequin, beside which is a history of the coat written by Clifford Roberts.
Also displayed are the crystal prizes awarded for various accomplishments at the Masters and a silver model of the clubhouse, like the one which goes to the winner. In the upper lefthand side of the trophy case is a reproduction of the front page of the Augusta Chronicle from the tournament's first year, HORTON SMITH WINS is the banner headline. To the right of the green jacket is a photo of Sam Snead shaking hands with Ben Hogan after Snead won the playoff in 1954. Only one picture hangs on the wall: a shot from behind the 12th green taken during the 1947 Masters.
"It's magic walking in there," says Crenshaw. "You can relax a bit, eat a bite before you go and play, or just sit and talk with some of the older champions who are there early in the week. It's a great time to converse with them, get their ideas on what's happening in the game. It's sort of a continuum."
In Ben's Defense
The week before the Masters was an emotional one for Crenshaw, the defending champion. On Tuesday he marked the first anniversary of Harvey Penick's death by visiting his mentor's grave in Austin. On Wednesday, Crenshaw watched the videotape of last year's triumph for only the second time. On Thursday the Masters Journal, the tournament's program, arrived with a story retelling Crenshaw's sentimental win. "We've been crying all week, and we're not even there yet," said Crenshaw's wife, Julie. "Hopefully we've got all the tears out of us." On Saturday, Crenshaw came down with a stomach virus and spent most of the day in bed, but he did get up to have a photograph taken of him in the green jacket. On Sunday he flew to Augusta.
All last summer Crenshaw talked about the hangover from his Masters victory. He had one top-10 finish the rest of the year and was 0-3 in the Ryder Cup. An 11th-place finish in the season-opening Mercedes Championships is his best result in 1996, yet it would be a mistake to discount Crenshaw this week in Augusta. His game was in far worse shape a year ago, when he was favoring a sore toe. All it took was a tip on ball position from his caddie, Carl Jackson, and Crenshaw had one of the best ball-striking weeks of his life. And the Masters is a putting contest, anyway. There is no better putter than the defending champion.
Don't look for Nick Price to light it up at Augusta. The weapon he must rely on most this week, the Fat Lady putter, made by Bobby Grace, has not been singing for over a year now. "The last time I felt good about my putting was the 1994 Canadian Open," says Price. By no small coincidence, that was his last victory in North America. Price's problem started at the '94 Million Dollar Challenge in South Africa when he broke the Fat Lady he had used to win the British Open and the PGA. He has been putting with an identical model but not with identical results. "I curse the day the head of that putter fell off," Price says. "It's kind of like losing one of your best friends."