Masters Champions Confidential: Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Ray Floyd join our roundtable
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, make predictions and reveal their favorite Masters traditions. Special thanks to these gracious champions for their time. We hope you enjoy it.
1. Who is your pick to win this year’s Masters?
Billy Casper, 1970 Masters champion: Oh my gosh, I think it’s wide open this year. You have so many young players who are playing so well. It’s just a matter of if they have enough experience to win. Or is it going to be one of the older fellas who has been there a number of years. I think the tournament is as wide open as it’s ever been. Normally, Tiger or Phil would be the favorite because they have won there before. It’s hard to pick anyone right now. I just got a flash: Rory. How’s that?
Zach Johnson, 2007 Masters champion: If his wrist is healthy, I like Jason Day a lot. He has everything it takes to win at Augusta and has been close in the past.
Fuzzy Zoeller, 1979 Masters champion: Well it’s not going to be me or Hubert Green! The one great thing about the golf course is that it caters to the long ball hitter, more so now than ever because of the length of the golf course. But you’ve still got to look at your veterans. Phil has always played well there. Vijay will if he gets his putter going. I really can’t put one in front of the other. It depends on how the hell they putt. At Augusta, you can make a lot of birdies, but you can also make a lot of dreaded “others” that can take you out of the tournament.
Arnold Palmer, 1958, 1960, 1962, 1964 Masters champion: I’ll be different: Chris Kirk. He would be my under-the-radar pick, too.
Sandy Lyle, 1988 Masters champion: The defending Champion: Adam Scott. He has the right game for Augusta. He knows how to do it and is playing well.
Raymond Floyd, 1976 Masters champion: I like a player who is on the climb. A player who is playing really well out in front of it. Look at the way the game has evolved. With Tiger not winning every week, who is the guy? It’s a different animal now.
Bernhard Langer, 1985 and 1993 Masters champion: I think I’m going to go with Jason Day. He’s my horse. He’s been close a few times, and I think he’s ready.
Ian Woosnam, 1991 Masters champion: Rory McIlroy. He draws the ball naturally, hits it high and is running into form.
Gary Player, 1961, 1974 and 1978 Masters champion: I have always felt that The Masters will usually produce a champion who has learned the hard way at Augusta before. There are a number of golfers who have a great chance at a green jacket this year. Obvious favorites are Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy, but I like the chances of Henrik Stenson, Jason Day and Phil Mickelson. Phil has won at Augusta three times before and certainly knows what it takes to excel at this great venue. He usually plays well at Augusta, so there is no counting him out for another green jacket.
Charl Schwartzel, 2011 Masters champion: Adam Scott. He is on good form and has recent positive thoughts of Augusta.
Mike Weir, 2003 Masters champion: Augusta National is a long, tough course that requires a lot of shot making ability. I like Rory McIlroy’s chances this year. He as all the tools required to win on a course like Augusta National, and he nearly did in 2011.
2. Who is an under-the-radar player that you think will play well this year at Augusta?
Player: I have been very impressed with how Dustin Johnson is playing so far this year. One of the longest hitters on Tour, Johnson has been fun to watch early this season with a number of Top 10 finishes. Dustin is also one of the fittest players on Tour, which certainly gives him an advantage. I am looking forward to seeing him best last year’s finish at the Masters, and I truly believe it will only be a matter of time until he captures his first major championship. I also had the pleasure to play a practice round with Branden Grace and George Coetzee last year. I must tell you that both of these young South African guys are real talents. Hopefully I was able to give them some tips during our practice round last year that pay off.
Langer: I think I’ll go with Jimmy Walker. He still flies under the radar even though he is playing great.
Weir: With the state of the game today the field is very strong so there are a lot of players that fly under the radar. I am excited that my fellow Canadian Graham DeLaet is playing in his first Masters tournament this year. Augusta National fits his game very well. He hits a long, high ball that will favor him on the par 5s. He also has a very good short game to back up his ball-striking ability.
Floyd: I don’t know how under the radar he is, but does anybody think about Angel Cabrera? He seems to play well there every year. Other than Angel, I’d pick one of the young guys. I really like Patrick Reed’s attitude.
Casper: I think Jimmy Walker is such a strong, good player. There are a lot of intricacies at Augusta. You don’t learn the golf course by playing a couple of practice rounds. Most of the time, the winners are guys who have played there quite a while. It’s normally a golf course you have to learn about.
Lyle: Keegan Bradley. He is starting to play well at the right time, and his putter seems to be ready to do some damage.
Woosnam: Patrick Reed or my fellow Welshman, Jamie Donaldson. He also has a nice, natural draw.
Zoeller: Without seeing the list, it’s hard to pull one name. But I’ll pull one out of the hat for you: Ernie Els.
Johnson: I would say Jimmy Walker, but he's not under the radar anymore. Other than that, a possible sleeper would be Graham DeLaet, who played great in the President's Cup.
Schwartzel: Thongchai Jaidee would be my dark horse pick.
3. What is your favorite Masters tradition?
Johnson: How could you pick just one? Obviously the green jacket is what every golfer dreams of putting on, so that would have to be at the top. The stories that are told during the Champions Dinner are a highlight as well.
Floyd: The Champions Dinner is special because you only have the champions in there. You can tell stories that you know won’t leave the room. In the older days, Sam Snead would always have a few words and tell a raunchy joke. Being there with Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson is something you never forget.
Palmer: Green jacket. It’s a very well-established tradition at Augusta.
Langer: Definitely the Champions Dinner. It’s one of the highlights whenever I go there. It’s only past champions and the chairman, so it’s always great company. Good food, good wine and some jokes. It’s just a great time. It’s exclusive. It’s fun to be a part of it.
Woosnam: It’s a very special evening with all the past champions coming together and reminiscing over a well-chosen menu. It’s a unique event, and I really look forward to it each year.
Player: Each of those traditions are so wonderful. I am not sure I could choose one. The rich history at the Masters is part of what makes this tournament so special. One of my favorite personal traditions is that every year when I arrive for the tournament, I get dropped off at the entrance of Magnolia Lane and take the walk from Washington Road to the clubhouse and the Champion’s locker room. I just take that time to soak in the special atmosphere at Augusta and think back on all the great memories at the tournament. Other than that, I must say that having the green jacket slipped on in the Butler Cabin and then going out to the 18th green to do it again in public is truly one of the greatest pleasures in golf. It is very special to have the jacket put on by the previous year’s champion. It is like a rite of passage, an initiation to the Masters Champions fraternity.
Lyle: All of them and more. Everyday you arrive at Augusta, your hairs are sensing the excitement. Every tradition is special.
Schwartzel: Champions Dinner -- It's just a special night.
Weir: It is very hard to pick just one Masters tradition as they all mean so much to me. I would have to say my memories of the green jacket ceremony in front of the Augusta National Clubhouse and having Tiger do the honours is a memory that will always be special to me.
Zoeller: Those three are the largest of the week. The par-3 tournament is a little feather in the cap. I tell you what makes the Champions Dinner cool is that there are not 150 guys. There are something like 27 of us. It’s a nice club to be in. It’s an honor to go in there. It’s a fun evening. It’s always good to see the older guys and listen to their war stories.
Casper: Turning off Washington Road onto Magnolia Lane. That’s the most exciting experience players can have. It doesn’t change. I’ve been going there since '57, and it does not change. It’s just as exciting today as it was when I first went there. There’s no other golf course you can say that about.
4. Other than your wins, what is your favorite Masters of all-time?
Casper: It’s interesting. In 1969, I went there and shot 66-71-71 for 208 and led by one shot into the final round. I finished one shot behind George Archer. In 1970, I shot 72-68-68 for 208 and had a one-shot lead on Gene Littler. It’s because of what I learned in '69 leading after three rounds what it will take to win on Sunday.
Lyle: Without a doubt 1986 when I witnessed Jack winning his final major at Augusta.
Schwartzel: 1997 -- Just to watch Tiger dominate the way he did.
Player: I would say that first time that I ever competed at Augusta 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. We 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 grounds of Augusta National was unforgettable. The first thing I did after walking down Magnolia Lane was go to the practice tee. I did not go there to hit balls, but instead to watch some of the players I most respected and admired like Ben Hogan and Sam Snead practicing. It was an amazing moment.
Woosnam: Jack Nicklaus in 1986. No one gave him any chance that year but to win it again at the age of 46 was a fantastic achievement.
Johnson: Well, I guess if I had to choose just one other than 2007, I'd have to go with Jack winning in 1986. Hard to top that!
Floyd: It’s hard not to take last year’s with Scott and Cabrera. That’s vivid in my memory. I was at Augusta during that final round. If I took a book and had to recall other Masters, I couldn’t find a better one.
Palmer: Other than the years when I won, I guess my favorite -- or certainly the most memorable and emotional one -- was my last one in 2004.
Weir: One of my favorite Masters moments came in 1986 when Jack won with that incredible back nine charge.
Zoeller: As a golfer, you always look down to that special place down in Georgia. It’s a special spot. Everyone of the tournaments I’ve played in here has been special to me.
Langer: For me, it’s Nicklaus winning in 1986 with his son on his bag and me putting the green jacket on him. That is such a cool memory. I don’t remember word for word, but I probably said you’re a great champion and congrats on having your son with you.
5. If you could build a house at any hole at Augusta National, what hole would it be on and why?
Weir: I don’t necessarily think there is a bad place to build a home at Augusta. The whole property is beautiful and one-of-a-kind. If I had the choice, it would definitely be somewhere around Amen Corner. I think a great spot would be at the corner of the dogleg the 13th, from there you can see Nos. 11, 12, 13 and 14.
Floyd: I’d pick where the clubhouse is. They picked the right spot. That’s where I’d want my own to be. It was well picked. The panorama. You can look down the 10th, look down the 18th, look down the 1st. The views are spectacular.
Woosnam: If I had the choice, I think I’d build it at the back of the 12th so you’d get some great views of people playing over the lake, as well as some general views of the holes around Amen Corner.
Johnson: Next question. No houses on Augusta National.
Langer: It would definitely be on the 13th hole, high above where you look down on the azalea bushes. It’s one of my favorite views on the course.
Player: I suppose I would choose the start of Amen Corner, behind the water at the green on the 11th hole, though I am not sure that I could go wrong with any hole. The 11th is a monster par-4 and is one of my favorite golf holes throughout the world. Boy, has it seen its fair share of drama too. When the pin is tucked near the water on Sunday, it makes for some exciting golf. Anyone who makes four here every day of the tournament is likely to be very near the top of the leaderboard come Sunday.
Palmer: I’d build it where the clubhouse is now.
Schwartzel: Left of 16th hole because you can see down No. 15 and up No. 17. Plus I have some good memories there.
Zoeller: I’d build it on the tee at No. 10 overlooking the 10th fairway to the right overlooking the 18th green and 10th tee and look down that beautiful hole. When the shadows get on that hole, it is spectacular.
Casper: There is such a reverence at Amen Corner. It would be neat to have a place to the left of the 12th green, up in the trees where you are overlooking Nos. 11, 12 and the 13th tee.
Lyle: I would build my house at the back of the 12th. It’s the most fascinating, mood changing hole on the course, and I could study it 24/7.
6. With several high-profile rookies playing in their first Masters, what advice would you give them? What advice do you wish someone had given you at your first Masters?
Johnson: While it is easier said than done, I would tell them to try and treat the week just like another tournament and each day as just another 18 holes of golf. Stick to the routines that have been successful because obviously they are there for a reason and try not to do anything too different from the normal routine. But at the end of the day, at Augusta National there is no substitute for experience.
Lyle: My advice would be for any newcomer not to be a hero in the first hour of play. Be patient, settle down and enjoy. In my first appearance, I had no idea how severe the change of speed on the greens, from practice to official play, was going to be. Luckily this is no longer the case.
Woosnam: I’d suggest that a rookie tries to play a practice round with someone experienced, who can tell you where to hit it and where not too. Have plenty of putts, as there will only be four or five pin positions during the week, so you can practice them all from all the different angles.
Floyd: It’s a difficult course to play totally aggressive on. You can select places after your drive that you can choose to be aggressive on. But it takes a while to learn those situations.
Player: Playing in your first Masters is not an experience to be forgotten. I can still vividly remember my first trip to Augusta in 1957. As far as my advice to Masters rookies, I would tell them to not take any of the practice rounds for granted. Augusta National requires great strategy and knowledge of the course. 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 playing the course and tournament experience. It is always a good idea for a rookie to find a previous champion or seasoned veteran and request to play a practice round with them to learn where to place or hit shots around the course. Most importantly, I’d tell them to focus on their short game, because it is their short game is what will make the difference between making the cut, missing the cut, or being in contention. Putting well at Augusta comes with experience because the pace at Augusta National is fast and the greens all have some rather extreme undulations. The greens are fast, but the key is not to shoot for the flags, rather carefully choose your spots to land the ball on the greens. It took quite a long time for me to realize that some holes are not meant to be birdied at Augusta National. There are some holes where it is just best to play for par.
Weir: My best piece of advice is to start talking to the players who have played in the Masters eight, nine or 10 times. The Masters is unlike any other tournament. The feeling you get on the first tee is almost magical, and it can be very intimidating and nerve-wracking. There are so many slopes and undulations around the greens, you could spend 100 hours a week practicing on them and still be surprised during the tournament. Other than that, the best piece of advice is to enjoy the experience and be proud of what you have accomplished in order to receive an invitation to the Masters.
Zoeller: Enjoy the whole week. Take it all in. With the course, this is where I think the young guys are making a mistake. There’s a lot to know about Augusta National. They should take a local caddie for the first year they are there and take every note those local caddies give them. They might save you a stroke or a stroke and a half, and that’s huge.
Casper: Learn the golf course. From the first time you get there, you learn how to play Augusta National. Rarely do players win in the first time there. It takes a tremendous amount of learning to win it.
Langer: Pay real close attention to the greens, but they do that anyway. Everyone has talked about it for years. I had 11 three-putts in 36 holes the first time I played. I was 11 shots behind the leader. If you can figure out the greens and know where to hit it, you can save a lot of putts. You need a lot of knowledge for that place. It’s a little easier nowadays, but it still does take some knowledge.