The two greatest golf evenings of the year are the Champions Dinner at the Open Championship (aka the British Open to my American friends) and the Champions Dinner at Augusta National. I’m always very excited for these events, because having played in this tournament the most number of times, I know how tough this golf course is and I know just what it takes to win this tournament, so I have great respect for the people who have been able to do it. Just to watch the tournament, you’re lucky! To win, it’s a miracle.
The previous year’s winner chooses a dish, usually something from his home country. I always made sure I had three or four different kinds of choices. I didn’t want anyone saying, “Wow, I really didn’t enjoy that.” I gotta make them happy, so they walk out and say, “Gary really chose well.” So no healthy stuff that night. Healthy stuff tastes like crap to people!
I wake up, go for my morning workout at the gym, hit a few balls off the practice tee and then I get ready to go to Augusta. I walk over to Amen Corner to meet Arnold and Jack for interviews by the Ben Hogan Bridge and then we go to dinner.
I have so many amazing memories from that night. I used to sit next to Bobby Jones at the Champions Dinner and cut his meat for him when he was riddled with arthritis. I would squeeze the fork between his big fingers, jab at it and help him get it done. One year, I was thinking about Augusta’s third hole. It’s a short par-4, they put the flag on the left-hand corner, and if you’re short, you run it back 30 yards, and if you go over, you’re well over, so it’s the most impossible shot you’ve ever seen. So I leaned it and said to him, “Mr. Jones, I cannot birdie that third hole.” He put his head down and said, “You’re not supposed to birdie it.” You’re supposed to play it for a 4. Hit the middle of the green and take your two putts and leave. He was a wonderful man and a great ambassador for golf. He always took his hat off after victory or loss.
Another time I was sitting next to Ben Hogan when Horton Smith, the first man to win the Masters, passed a book around to all the players to sign because he had a leading junior in his club. We all signed it until it got to Hogan, who was at the head of the table, and he slammed the book on the table so hard I nearly jumped out of my skin. He stood up, and he said, “Who passed this damn book up here?” And Horton Smith said, “Ben, I did. I’ve got a leading junior at my club.” And Hogan said, “Horton, this is the Masters, not an autograph session!” He was tough. It’s different now. Everyone’s signing menus, but not in his day, I can tell you that. As the Scottish would say, “He’d be turning in his grave, laddie!”