They Gather once a year, clad in green and cloaked in mystery, members of the most exclusive society within golf's most secretive club. On Tuesday night of tournament week, two days before play begins, the Masters Club convenes in Augusta National's clubhouse for what is commonly known as the past champions' dinner. The food is good and the price is right, but it is the company that makes this evening unique. The only way to earn an invitation is to win golf's most prestigious tournament, no small feat considering that there have been more U.S. presidents (42) than Masters champions (39). To get the inside scoop on a dinner that no outsider has ever crashed, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED interviewed 15 of the 29 living Masters winners. Most echo Byron Nelson, the 1937 and '42 champ, who calls the event the highlight of his year. "I don't know if it's the most exclusive dinner in the world," says Nelson, who has been at every one since the first, in 1952, "but when you're in that room, it sure feels like it."
The evening begins with cocktails in the Masters Club Room, the second-floor locker room and lounge reserved for past champs. There's an open bar, but Bob Goalby, the 1968 champion, says, "I've never seen anyone get drunk. Most of the guys control it well." No such moderation is exercised when it comes to the olives that are brought in for the occasion. Light green in color and nearly as big as golf balls, the olives are the lasting legacy of Clifford Roberts, the eccentric cofounder of the tournament, who procured them from a secret source. "Those olives are absolutely the most delicious thing on earth," says Fuzzy Zoeller, the 1979 winner. "Arnold [Palmer, 1958, '60, '62 and '64] and I usually have a contest to see who can put more of them away."
Appetizers, usually in the same gastronomic genre as the entrée selected by the host champion, are also served. The barbecue dinner of three years ago chosen by Ben Crenshaw (1984, '95) was preceded by trays of appetizers garnished with jalapeño peppers. "For those less familiar with jalapeños," says Crenshaw, swallowing a grin, "I guess they look like pickles. Well, Jack [Nicklaus, 1963, '65, '66, '72, '75 and '86] picked up a big one and popped it in before any of us could stop him. I will tell you, he was hurtin'. There was sweat pouring off of him. Hord Hardin [the former tournament chairman] did the same thing."
At 7:30 p.m. sharp the players pose for the annual group photo, younger champions in front, older ones in the back. They then move next door to the library, where dinner is served. Lined with vintage books and dignified portraits, the library is a regal setting, enhanced by its sweeping views of the course. The door that leads into the room is emblazoned with the Augusta National seal, about waist-high. "Every year Sam [Snead, 1949, '52 and '54] comes through that door and kicks the seal," says Goalby. "About 10 years ago he came through and said, 'Oh, the old man can't do it anymore.' Gary [Player, 1961, '74 and '78] said, 'Mon, I never thought I'd see the day when the great Sambo couldn't kick that door seal.' So Palmer says, 'I'll bet $100 he can kick it if he tries again.' Sam went back out and kicked it just like raising your hand. I know Arnold and Sam split that hundred of Gary's."
Inside the library there is only one large, rectangular table. The place settings are in white china, bordered in green, with seven pieces of silver per. Three gentlemen are seated at the head of the table—the current champ, the tournament director (the only mortal allowed) and Nelson, who for as long as anyone can remember has been a jovial master of ceremonies. There is no formal seating arrangement for the rest of the group. Once the champions are seated, dinner is promptly served. "As you might imagine, the service is good," says Nelson.
Most of the existing lore about the Masters Club involves the menu selected by the reigning champion, because this is the only information Augusta National makes public. It is unclear when this tradition started. "When I had my dinner," says Doug Ford (1957), "there wasn't all this bull. They just gave you a couple of entrees. I usually had spaghetti and meatballs." In the 1980s and early '90s, when the Masters was dominated by international players, the dinner selections became increasingly exotic, as the hosts began serving dishes from their respective homelands. The most celebrated meal was that chosen by Sandy Lyle (1988), haggis, a Scottish delicacy consisting of the heart, liver, lungs and kidneys of a sheep, cooked in the animal's stomach. Turned out in his kilt, Lyle pulled a dagger from its sheath and performed the ceremonial stabbing of the haggis to kick off the meal. Only the intrepid Tommie Aaron (1973) and Zoeller have admitted trying the haggis. No one went hungry, however. Every year a limited selection of entrees from the club's regular menu are offered in addition to the host champion's choices. Good thing, too, because at this year's dinner Mark O'Meara is serving sashimi and sushi as an appetizer. Not trusting Augusta National's kitchen staff, O'Meara is borrowing a sushi chef from the Tokyo Sports Network, which flies one in from Japan every year to prepare meals for its staff.
If importing a cook sounds like a hassle, try cooking an entire meal in Texas and then serving it in Georgia. That's what happened when Crenshaw decided he had to have his barbecue from his favorite spot, the Salt Lick, a greasy spoon near his hometown of Austin. What followed was an operation that made the Berlin airlift look modest by comparison.
"The folks at Augusta were friendly enough, but it was clear from the git-go that we weren't welcome in their kitchen," says Harry Collins, the Salt Lick's general manager. "They wouldn't even let us drive our truck in and set up in the parking lot. So the only option was to cook it, freeze it, Cryovac it and FedEx it. All they had to do was heat it up and add the sauce."
If only it were that simple. The day before the dinner, Collins got a call from the National wondering why the food hadn't arrived. It turned out that FedEx had somehow misplaced the shipment. This was a particularly acute problem because the Salt Lick was closed on Mondays. Showing the will of a champion, Collins assembled his staff and produced a duplicate order: 45 pounds of ribs, 30 pounds of sausage, 25 pounds of brisket, mountains of coleslaw, potato salad and beans, and 60 14-ounce bottles of sauce, all lovingly packed in a dozen 30-quart coolers with dry ice. This batch was shipped without a glitch, and when the original order finally turned up, it, too, was heated up and served. The mass quantities of Q was not a problem. Among the Masters champs, a crowd that skews disproportionately toward good ol' boys, Crenshaw's meal is spoken of in the sort of reverential tones usually reserved for Ben Hogan anecdotes.
Hogan (1951 and '53), it turns out, populates many of the old-timers' recollections about the early days of the Masters Club. It is no small irony that he, the most antisocial of men, dreamed up the club and spearheaded its formation. As a result, he was compelled to act as the first master of ceremonies. "Hogan was one of the best speakers I ever heard, but he had to be prepared," says Gay Brewer Jr. (1967). "He wouldn't get up and make a speech at the dinner unless he had something prepared." Just because it was his night didn't prevent the Hawk from showing his talons. Recalls Ford, "One dinner we asked Hogan to join the Senior tour, and he said, 'Fellows, my game is not for public view anymore.' After the meal Goalby said, 'I'm going to try once more.' So he said, 'Ben, we really need you.' Hogan hit the goddam table and said, 'Bob, I told you my game is not for public view!' That was the end of that conversation."