In honor of Tuesday night's Champions Dinner, we convened a special Green Jacket Confidential roundtable of former Masters champions to talk about this year's tournament, their best Masters memories and their favorite holes at Augusta National. Special thanks to these gracious champions for their time. We hope you enjoy it.
1. Who is your pick to win the green jacket?
Billy Casper, 1970 Masters champion: Tiger. Tiger’s playing well. He’s won so many times there. He’s really playing well. It looks like Rory is starting to come into his own. With those two playing well, it would be a great Masters.
Charl Schwartzel, 2011 Masters champion: I’m sure there are a lot of bookmakers around the world filling their pockets with the money of punters trying to pick golf tournament winners. It’s definitely not easy. I always feel that if I am playing my best then I have the chance to win whenever I tee it up, but I would never say that I am going to win. There are so many contenders and I suppose top of that list now would be Tiger Woods, who has had such an impressive start to the season.
Gary Player, 1961, 1974 and 1978 Masters champion: Most people will not argue with Tiger Woods as the overwhelming favorite to win the Masters. Tiger is off to a great start this year with tons of momentum going into this year’s tournament. Plus, he is a phenomenal putter and to win at Augusta you have to putt well. Other favorites include Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy. But I like the chances of Louis Oosthuizen, Lee Westwood and Adam Scott. I would love to see Sergio Garcia win, but I personally feel that Tiger is due to have a great year.
Arnold Palmer, 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964 Masters champion: I think there are numerous people who could take a run. I think Tiger should be the favorite, no question. If I were arbitrary about it, I would still take the field.
Bernhard Langer, 1985 and 1993 Masters champion: Tiger Woods
Trevor Immelman, 2008 Masters champion: Tiger is going to be a hard guy to bet against purely because he’s won there in so many different styles and conditions. Nothing that happens there will be catching him off guard, so I imagine he’ll be pretty comfortable and hard to bet against. There’s definitely a strategy and a formula to those greens, understanding the breaks and the speeds, and I think that’s why you see the same guys doing well there. Because once you figure that out, you can get more and more comfortable with the speed and undulation of those greens, the hole locations. It’s much easier to start to formulate some sort of strategy. At that point, if you’re playing well, you can enforce that strategy and have some shot at winning.
Raymond Floyd, 1976 Masters champion: Tiger Woods. Traditionally, the golf course suits a long-hitter, obviously. And someone who can draw the ball. The majority of the golf course favors a natural draw, not someone who has to work to make it draw. You can categorize players using that. And guys who had a good early spring or a good start to the season. You can graph it like a stock. Guys who are playing well or who have even won a tournament or could have won once or twice, they have their confidence. But again, there are guys who can win majors, and guys who can’t. There are all kinds of factors that go in there.
Ian Woosnam, 1991 Masters champion: You have to go with the form player -- Tiger.
Angel Cabrera, 2009 Masters champion: Me!
2. Which players have games that fit Augusta National or could potential be dark horse candidates?
Casper: You’ve got a whole group of them now. Snedeker has played unbelievable for some time now. If he’s over that rib section, he could be a great factor.
Floyd: It will be difficult for Snedeker, no matter the start he had. When you get put on the bench for an injury, it’s hard to come back and play as well as you did before.
Schwartzel: If I can’t win then there’s nobody I would more like to see joining me in the green jacket club than my good friend Louis Oosthuizen, who wouldn’t be much of a dark horse given that he was runner-up last year.
Langer: Rory McIlroy
Woosnam: Justin Rose. I have a good feeling about him this year.
Player: To win at the Masters, you have to know when to play aggressive and when to play the safe shot -- that generally only comes from experience. Playing well from tee to green will get you into contention, but your short game is what will make the difference between making the cut, missing the cut, or being on top of the leaderboard. I think the players best suited for the Masters are Tiger for his fierce determination, experience and putting and Phil Mickelson, who has really been wonderful at Augusta the past couple years. As far as a dark horse, I could also see Lee Westwood, Adam Scott, or Sergio Garcia rising to the occasion.
3. What memory stands out the most from your victory at Augusta?
Floyd: I think it was one of those things that only happens a couple of times in your life where all gears are clicking. I drove well, I hit greens in regulation and I was putting beautifully. I hit more par 5s in two than I missed greens. You never see that written about that week. So I played tee-to-green under par. That’s pretty exceptional there. It was the event that I wanted to win. I grew up geographically very near there in North Carolina. As a youngster, every game I played was, “If I make this putt, I win the Masters.” “If I par this hole, I can win the Masters.” Without question, I can’t extrapolate one shot or one thing for the week. The way the week went down, I went wire-to-wire and won by eight. At that time, I tied the record that Jack had set. From all of that, how could I pull one thing? I couldn’t do that. On Sunday I knew how well I was playing, and I didn’t want to go into a power-saving mode. I didn’t want to go out and play safe. A lot of players -- and we’ve all done it if you’ve had enough experience -- you will get playing well, get a lead and just start protecting it. All of a sudden, somebody catches you, you try and get it back in gear and it’s gone. Respect it and run with it while you have it.
Immelman: It was an opportunity for me to really do something great in my career. My senses were heightened. I was playing well since the first day, so I was excited to get out there. It was a tough day, so it was real windy, and it was a little cold to start. It was a pretty challenging day. We got out there and were just trying to hang on and survive. I found myself with quite a large lead with three holes to play. At that point, I was just trying to get it into the house there. It was definitely a big deal, but those first three days definitely prepared me somewhat for what to expect. I played real late on Saturday, so I was used to the morning routine having slept on the lead. I definitely think leading the first three days gave me a little taste of what to expect on Sunday.
Player: My favorite Masters would probably be the 1978 tournament when I won my final green jacket. I was 7 strokes off the lead going into the final round, but was certain that I still had the ability to make a good run at a comeback. My son Wayne told me that morning if I had a good putting day, I could shoot 65 and still win. With that number in mind, I shot a 34 on the front before my putter really started to heat up. The back nine of the 1978 Masters was the best nine holes of my life. There is no better feeling than to shoot 30, for a total of 64, on Sunday to win the Masters. At that point, I was the oldest player ever to win the Green Jacket. It was a wonderful feeling at age 42.
Casper: It was very interesting. I walked off the back of the green, and [former Augusta National Chairman] Cliff Roberts was there. And he extended his hand. I shook it and expected him to say, “Congratulations, Billy.” But he didn’t. He said, “Thank you, Billy.” So that made it very special. He had been rooting for me for years, and we had a very close relationship.
Palmer: I won three times prior to 1964, and they were all squeakers. They were very tough wins. The one thing I wanted was to be able to walk up No. 18 in a relaxed mood and feel confident that I could win. And that happened in ’64. There’s never anything real easy about winning the Masters.
4. Is there a certain Masters that you didn’t win that still stands out in your mind as especially memorable?
Player: I competed in my first Masters Tournament in 1957 after my father wrote Clifford Roberts, the chairman of Augusta National, saying how much he admired the Masters Tournament and told him of my victories in 1956 at the South African Open, the Dunlop event in the UK and at the Ampol championship in Australia. My dad received a letter back from Mr. Roberts saying: "Pass the hat!" in response to my father saying that he would take a collection at the local golf club to pay for my trip if I received an invite. With Mr. Roberts’ go-ahead, I was on my way. That first time on the ground of Augusta National was a moment that I will never forget. After walking down Magnolia Lane, the first thing I did was go to the practice tee, not to hit balls, but to watch some of the players I most respected and admired like Ben Hogan and Sam Snead practicing. It was an amazing moment.
Immelman: The one that really got me into it was the first one I watched live on television in South Africa in 1986. You had Jack, who was 46, Seve and Norman, all at the top of their games. All of the best players in the world were on that first page of the leaderboard that day, and Jack shot that 30 on the back nine to win. I had never seen anything like that. I was only 6 years old, but even watching it in South Africa, you could feel the nervousness, the emotion and the excitement. I've watched every Masters since then.
Floyd: When Freddie [Couples] won, I finished second. So that’s usually not good, but second isn’t bad. Jack Stephens, who was the chairman, asked [my wife] Maria and I to stay because he knew how close Freddie and I were, and we stayed for his dinner that night. So that’s an unusual situation for Augusta.
5. What's your favorite hole at Augusta National?
Palmer: I enjoy Augusta period. I like all the holes, and I’m a big fan of the Masters.
Casper: With the conditions at Augusta, every hole changes. With what has transpired down through the years, it’s hard to single out any one hole. Probably the neatest hole is No. 12, the par 3 over Rae’s Creek. So many different things that have gone on there at that hole like Couples’ ball rolling back and not going into the water [in 1992] and Palmer burying the ball in the face of the bunker in the mud and getting to drop on top of the trap. Claude Harmon holed the ball for a 1 [in 1947], and Hogan hit it about five feet by and holed the putt for 2. Not a word was ever spoken between them about the hole-in-one. Finally Hogan said something as they were arriving on the 13th fairway: “That’s the first time I birdied that hole in almost seven years.” Until their dying days, they never acknowledged the hole-in-one that Claude Harmon made. It’s a funny story. So much can happen down in that little hole with the way the wind billows in over the trees from Augusta Country Club. The wind comes up the valley from the left, then right down No. 13. One year my caddie told me it was a 7-iron: “Hit that 7-iron, in 20-30 seconds, it will be different.”
Schwartzel: I’m not sure that I love one hole more than another, but I do have a favorite stretch and that’s 15 through 18 because I birdied each one in the last round when I won in 2011.
Cabrera: The 155 yard par-3 12th
Player: The start of Amen Corner, the par-4 11th hole White Dogwood, is probably my favorite at Augusta. The whole of Amen Corner is a beautiful, yet very challenging, part of the course. I always thought the short 16th is the most treacherous hole. It has cost a lot of people, and it’s probably the most severe green I’ve ever played in golf. With the pin cut back left on the last day, it’s particularly harsh.
Floyd: It’s such a great golf course overall, I don’t know if I could pick a hole over one that was my favorite. The architecture is so phenomenal. The way the golf course was routed and laid out. It would be very hard for me to pick a hole. And conditions change as well. You play a particular hole downwind, and it becomes into the wind the next day. It differs daily.
Immelman: That’s a good question. I can’t say I have one particular favorite. I will say I think the front nine is very underrated. For many years, the front nine wasn’t broadcast, so many people knew the back nine. Only in the past five years or so have they actually been able to see any golf on that front nine. Maybe people don’t know it as well, but the front nine is really difficult. There aren’t that many birdie opportunities on that front nine. That’s something that’s maybe misunderstood about Augusta National.
6. Is there a shot from your time at Augusta that you would like to have back?
Floyd: When I lost to Faldo in ’90. There were actually two. I got in the playoff on a bad decision on the 71st hole. Actually, the shot was played beautifully, I just played it to the middle of the green and hit it so solid that it went through to the short fringe. Where the pin was, it was almost impossible to two-putt. And I didn’t. I take that as a mental mistake. And that’s the thing I prided myself on. I might get beat by the strike of the ball, but I wasn’t going to get beat by a mental mistake. When you’ve got it going, you keep the pedal to the metal. And I played safe. I played for par, thinking if I par the last two holes, I win. And that’s mental. That’s a mental mistake. I should have been trying to birdie No. 17 and have a two-shot lead going into 18. And that’s the shot that I’ll always remember, even though on the second playoff hole, I pulled a 6-iron into the water. Which people always say, "Oh my god, that has to be the shot." But I should have never got to that shot.
Player: A shot that I wish I could have back was in the final round of the 1961 tournament where I nearly handed Arnold Palmer the green jacket on the 13th hole. I pushed my drive to the right in the pine trees and had a clear shot out onto the 14th fairway, which would have left me with nothing more than a wedge to the green. But do you think I could get the patrons to move? Not a bit. So I pitched back toward the fairway, but hit it too hard and rolled into Rae’s Creek. A penalty shot and three putts later and I had made a double-bogey 7 to Arnold’s birdie and was suddenly one behind. It was a young and inexperienced move. Had I not made that mistake and maybe been a bit more stubborn, I believe I would have won that tournament by a couple shots.
Palmer: The one thing that was not so very pleasant was in 1961 I had a one-shot lead going to the last hole and walked to the edge of the gallery ropes to shake hands with a friend there accepting congratulations. Then made 6 to lose the tournament. That was a devastating situation. That was my disaster. That’s the one I’d like to have back.
Immelman: At the end of the day, I won the tournament, so it all added up well. I remember being nervous on the first tee that day. The wind was really blowing hard from left-to-right. I was obviously a little unsettled on the first tee and lost it to the right in the trees. I had to chip out and started with a bogey. And on that first hole, to be honest, it’s one of the hardest opening holes in major championship golf. So bogey isn’t the end of the world, but obviously it wasn’t an ideal start for me being in the lead, trying to settle myself down. The first tee-shot of the day was kind of a tricky one.
Casper: In the playoff with Gene Littler. I had birdied the first hole and had a one-shot lead. I had a terrible drive on the second hole, hit a tree and bounced down left in the heavy rough. Actually was in the water hazard, but the gallery had walked down all of that high grass and my ball was on top of the high grass. About 2 inches behind the ball was a branch that covered half the ball, and the only shot I had was a 9-iron where I had the blade of the club over that branch and underneath the ball to hit it up in the air and over the trees to get it back into the fairway. And it was the most perfect shot I ever hit in my life. You would hit that shot one out of maybe 400. I knocked it back in the fairway then on the back edge of the green on my third shot. Littler had hit a great drive right down in the front of the traps, then he chili-dipped it into the right trap. When we walked off the hole, I had scored 5, and he had scored 6. I was then two shots ahead, and it was the key. I could have scored anything on that hole. I had some extremely good luck in the final round.
7. Can you describe what makes Augusta National such a special place for so many people?
Casper: From the time I drove into Magnolia Lane and witnessed the golf course and the facility, I wanted to win at Augusta. It was such a special place. No place is there in golf like Augusta. It may be the No. 1 sporting event in the world.
Player: Augusta National is like no other course in the world. It is the only course that holds a major championship year in and year out, so the great history and importance that it holds in the game of golf will remain unparalleled. From Bobby Jones to Tiger Woods, Augusta National has seen all the great names in golf, and helped elevate many golfers to great status with a victory there.
Immelman: There are so many different things. The mystique of the place, the history, the traditions and the rules, those are things that everyone who enters the ground has respect and admiration for. Anybody who loves the game of golf, it’s on their wish list to go to Augusta or play at Augusta. It’s one of those things that is synonymous with our sport, Augusta National and the Masters. It’s certainly unique. I would equate it to Wimbledon in tennis.
Floyd: There’s an ambience like no other. There is a mystique. It’s been there so long so it has an ambience like no other place or tournament. That captures, in short form, how you would describe it.
Palmer: I think the whole situation from Bob Jones, Cliff Roberts, who was the man behind the gun for most of the early years of Augusta, the chairmen through the years were all great people. That’s one of the particulars about Augusta and the fact that it is such a well-known event and it is the opening of the season for golf in America.