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Why this year’s Masters Champions Dinner will be extra spicy

One of the more enduring traditions of the Masters Tournament, beginning this week at Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club, is the so-called Champions Dinner – or Masters Club Dinner to give it its official name.

A mainstay of Masters week for 70 years, it takes place on the Tuesday evening before the four-day tournament kicks off on Thursday. The event sees the reigning champion – this year it’s the world’s No. 1 ranked golfer, Scottie Scheffler,  – host a dinner for the most exclusive guest list in pro sports with just fellow Masters champions and Augusta’s current chairman, Fred Ridley, invited.

In keeping with Augusta’s usual secrecy, the event starts at 7:15 p.m. and ends at 9 p.m. sharp.  No spouses or media are invited, nor are other members of Augusta National. Any photo from the event is officially released and those on the inside rarely go on the record about what transpires there.

Famously, the host golfer also chooses the menu.

This year, however, it will be served extra spicy and with a side order of awkwardness as the specter of LIV Golf looms large and its contracted players make their first appearance at the Masters since the new competition began last summer.

A group shot from the 1958 Masters Dinner. Missing is that year's winner Arnold Palmer, who had not yet won a Masters so had not been invited.
Augusta National/Getty Images

Yes, as the first major championship of the year gets under way, golf’s not-so-civil war between the PGA Tour and the Saudi-backed LIV threatens to dominate proceedings yet again. 

And the Champions Dinner will be no exception. 

While LIV golfers are suspended from the PGA Tour, the Masters is allowed to invite anybody it likes, providing they meet their qualifying criteria. That means there are 17 LIV players in the current field of around 90, six of whom just happen to be former Masters champions and, therefore, eligible to attend this year’s dinner.

When golf legend Ben Hogan started the tradition back in 1952, he wanted it to be a way for the players “to reminisce, swap banter and relax” before the tournament got underway. 

Current number one-ranked player Scottie Scheffler has chosen this year's menu at the Masters Dinner, which includes cheeseburger sliders and tortilla soup.
Getty Images

But the antipathy between the rival groups of players doesn’t augur well for a relaxing evening.

Certainly, 1992 Masters champion Freddie Couples isn’t happy.

Last week, he called LIV golfers and former Masters winners – and current LIV members – Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson a “clown” and a “nutjob,” respectively. 

“Just go to the LIV Tour, but stop blasting something I’ve been a part of for 42 years,” he said.

The menu for the Masters Dinner 2023.
The menu for the Masters Dinner 2023.

On Tuesday, Couples, 63, will dine with Garcia and Mickelson, and four other LIV players who have all won the Masters.

Two-time Masters winner and attendee Ben Crenshaw has predicted the meal will be “difficult,” telling the Golf Channel’s “Golf Today” that “it’s probably going to be tense in a few moments.”

Others are less restrained.

This week, golf commentator Gary McCord, banned from Augusta in 1994 for saying on air that the Augusta putting greens had been “bikini-waxed,” told that the idea that LIV players should even be at the Masters is a “steaming hot s–t mess”.

Still, some are hoping for peace to break out.

According to one leading TV golf analyst, who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of losing his Augusta credentials, it might be left to the senior citizens to take the lead. “I expect one of the older champions, like [87-year-old] Gary Player, to say something that will get the room going, and maybe even a little heated, but by the end of the night it’ll all be over and everyone will be fine,” he suggests to The Post.

Golf pioneer and 1992 Masters-winner Freddie Couples has been highly critical of players who've joined LIV Golf.
Charles Knight/Shutterstock

“Personally, I wouldn’t find it awkward at all,” adds the caddie of one golfer playing at Augusta this week, again under the condition of anonymity. 

“Why? Because it would mean I’d won the Masters and, as a golfer, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

It’s not often the Champions Dinner makes headlines. But when it does, it’s usually for the wrong reasons.

In 1997, when Tiger Woods waltzed to the first of his five Masters titles, Fuzzy Zoeller, the 1979 winner, was asked about the young player making history. 

Referring to Woods as “the little boy,” he told reporters to tell the new champion “not to serve fried chicken next year” before adding, “or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.”

Legendary player Ben Hogan (seen here with his Masters trophy in 1948) began the Masters Dinner tradition back in 1952 as a way for players to socialize before the tournament begins.
Bettmann Archive

He didn’t.

Woods, barely into his 20s, served up cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes.

Zoeller, then 45, was promptly dumped by a couple of his sponsors and forced to eat humble pie.

He is still welcome at Augusta, though.

The 2023 Champions Dinner, meanwhile, has been selected by Scheffler, and features a starter of cheeseburger sliders and firecracker shrimp, a main course of Texas ribeye steak and warm chocolate-chip skillet cookies to finish.

Typically, winners’ menus veer from predictable – 11 of the last 20 winners have chosen steak – to fiercely patriotic. 

When Scotsman Sandy Lyle won in 1988, for example, he served haggis (sheep’s liver, heart and lungs mixed with onion and oatmeal) and even wore a kilt for the occasion. 

Gay Brewer, Fuzzy Zoeller and Herman Keiser converse at the Champions Dinner during the 1997 Masters Tournament.
Augusta National/Getty Images

England’s Nick Faldo, meanwhile, opted for fish and chips while Canada’s Mike Weir chose wild game of elk and boar.

After his victory in 2012, Bubba Watson served Caesar salad, grilled chicken breast, macaroni and cheese and confetti cake. Then, when he won the Masters for a second time two years later, he dished up exactly the same menu all over again.

For the TV golf analyst, meanwhile, this year’s Champions Dinner might just pass off without incident, largely because of the absence of one key player from the meal.

“The irony is the guy who has been the biggest pro PGA Tour voice – Rory McIlroy – isn’t invited to the dinner and doesn’t get a say in any conversations that may happen,” he says.

Charl Schwartzel of South Africa was the 2011 Masters Champion. Here he preps a traditional South African 'braai' (or BBQ), which he served at the 2012 Masters Dinner.
Getty Images

Which is probably a good thing. Last year, McIlroy spoke about how golf’s civil war had impacted his friendships with European Ryder Cup teammates like Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia who had all jumped ship to LIV. “I wouldn’t say I’ve got much of a relationship with them at the minute,” he told the press at the BMW PGA Championship in Wentworth, England.  

Sergio Garcia has also said that there is “no way” that relations will ever be the same again.

While it’s sad for the players on a personal level, it’s the kind of standoff that makes you wonder how golf will ever recover from what appears to be a civil war without a clear endgame.

It’s certainly food for thought.