What makes the Masters special are its endearing traditions: the Par-3 Contest, players' skipping balls over the water at 16 during practice rounds, amateurs staying in the Crow’s Nest, and those green jackets.
But for Jack Nicklaus, the best tradition of all is the Champions Dinner, largely because those dinners are how the values of the game are passed from generation to generation. The Champions Dinner—officially known as the Masters Club—has been held on the Tuesday of Masters week since 1952. Only former champions (and the Augusta National chairman) are invited.
“In golf, old guys like me are still around, and we have dinners like we are having tonight, and we go there tonight and the young guys, they see the tradition, they see what goes on, they see how the older guys handle themselves and what they do,” Nicklaus said at a late-afternoon press conference at Augusta National on Tuesday. “Maybe that’s stuffy, but it happens to be inbred in the game of golf.”
Per another tradition, the previous year’s champion picks the menu for the dinner, and for Tuesday’s dinner, Phil Mickelson chose a Spanish menu of seafood paella and steak in honor of ailing former Masters champion Seve Ballesteros, who was too ill to travel to the dinner.
For Nicklaus, the dinner is the prime reason he still returns to Augusta National each year, and he called it “one of the great affairs” of golf.
“Now why—why really on earth—why would I ever want to come back 25 years later? Because it’s a great evening,” Nicklaus said. “It’s not the Par-3 tomorrow. Sure, I’m here and I’ll play in the Par-3 and it’s very nice to be the honorary starter. That’s all well and good. We come back because of the dinner,” Nicklaus said. “We come back to see the other guys and see the tradition of the game.”
And the 71-year-old Nicklaus still remembers when he was part of the younger generation.
“We used to come and listen to Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen,” Nicklaus said. “I used to get a kick out of that. [Ben] Hogan, those were my heroes growing up.”
What separates golf from other sports, Nicklaus said, is that in golf there are always older guys hanging around the course, unlike football, baseball and basketball.
“When you’re 15 years old and you’re going out and playing a golf course, who do you see at the golf course? You have a few other kids who you play with, but you are mostly dealing with going into a locker room or going into a dining room or going someplace where you have older people,” Nicklaus said. “Golfers seem to grow up around that, and in not many other sports does that happen.”
Nicklaus’s late afternoon press conference is starting to become a beloved tradition of its own. Here are some highlights, but the entire transcript is worth reading here: On whether Tiger Woods will pass Nicklaus's record 18 majors:I assume that he'll get his focus back on what he's doing, and he will probably pass my record. But then the last part I always say about it is, he's still got to do it. If you look at what he's got to do, he's still got to win five more, and that's more than a career for anybody else playing. On why it’s easier today for a player in his late 40s to win than when he won at age 46 in 1986:I think it’s more easier, frankly. The reason I say that is because equipment has allowed guys to extend their year. Equipment allowed me to extend my career. ...But the golf ball goes so much farther today. And so the ability for an older player ... to not worry about the distance of the golf course is not as significant as it was then. On that famous putt on 17 in 1986:I’ve gone back and putted that putt a hundred times since. … [and] it’s never broken left again.
On driving down Magnolia Lane I keep saying ... where do I go tee it up and go play, that’s the way I think. Then I look in the mirror and say, “No, no, no, not doing that.” On why younger players rely on coaches too much:I have always felt like, you can’t see the guy when you’re on the golf course. When you’ve got a problem, you have to fix it. You have to fix it now. ... I really think these guys would be better players if they didn’t run back all the time and try to figure out their own problems.