Forever Champions at the Masters

April 8, 2015 Updated: April 8, 2015

AUGUSTA, GA—In the sports world, the celebration of past athletic achievements is often relegated to a different time than the actual main event. Often such stars are feasted in either a pre-game event, or when the action breaks—such as halftime at football games or between halves in a basketball game.
At The Masters the celebration of past winners of the green jacket is handled far differently and is quite special.
Once a competitor has won the event he is forever eligible to play in the championship for as long as he wishes to place himself in the public eye. Few of the aged champions ever get by the 36-hole cut.
Years ago during my first attendance at the 1976 Masters I marveled watching the legendary Sam Snead warm-up on the practice range before heading to the course with his nephew J.C. Snead during one of the practice rounds. Sam still possessed a fluid and full shoulder turn and provided a good bit of pop off his tee shots. The distinctive Panama hat rested comfortably on his head and it was a joy to see such an all-time great—a man who started his professional career when Lou Gehrig was holding first base for the NY Yankees in the mid-30’s.
Since Augusta National is a private golf club it is free to determine the eligibility of whoever it wishes to invite to the annual Masters event.
Founder Bobby Jones believed past champions and amateurs of high caliber would always have a major role with the event.
In 1952, at the suggestion of Ben Hogan, a Champions Dinner was started. The event would be open only to winners of the green jacket and the only other people to be included were Jones and his right hand major domo for the event—Clifford Roberts.
Hogan’s final appearance at the Champions Dinner came with the 1967 Masters where he finished in a tie for 10th—along with his chief rival Snead.
The Champions Dinner is held Tuesday of Masters week and features a fascinating twist: the defending champion is responsible in selecting the menu—and picks up the tab.
When Scotsman Sandy Lyle won the event in 1988, he opted to have haggis on the menu. For those not familiar, haggis the innards of a sheep’s stomach. For the benefit of those seeking other options, the invited champions can select something off the regular menu since haggis was not seen as a preferred delicacy—save for Lyle.
In 2001, Vijay Singh opted for a Thai banquet and even had a chef invited to prepare the food according to tradition. When Tiger Woods served as host in 1998 following his first win at Augusta the year prior, he went with a more-suited teen-ager meal of cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, French fries and milkshakes.
The crowning moment of past meeting present occurs early on Thursday morning as the event is set to begin. The honorary ceremonial tee shots started in 1963 with past golf champions Jock Hutchinson and Fred McLeod holding court on what has become one of the most special traditions in all of golf.
In the years to follow such icons as Snead, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen provided the link from present times to past remembrances.
This Thursday, the honor will once again feature members of golf’s Big Three—Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Palmer injured his shoulder a few months back because of a fall, but pledged to once again join his famed rivals for the commencement of the game’s first major in 2015. Seeing the three champions—winners of 13 Masters titles—is indeed a link to saluting past deeds and ready to witness future moments set to unfold this week.

M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.