AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s hard to imagine any sporting event at which food plays a more important role than it does at the Masters. The sandwiches sold to spectators at circa 1985 prices, and available to players and even reporters at no charge at all, have always been an elemental part of the tournament.
The status of these sandwiches — pimento cheese, egg salad, various others — have only increased since November. What happened was a reporter asked Dustin Johnson, pre-tournament, to name his favorite Masters tradition. He thought about it for a second or two (the Masters has a lot of traditions) before saying, “The sandwiches.”
And that was before this year’s introduction of a new sandwich, chicken salad on brioche bun!
Really, you can’t overstate the importance of food, and meals, at the Masters, even in these pandemical times. The days are long and we all need food. Plus, as if this needs to be said, good food improves any occasion. The movie My Dinner with Andre is a rumination on the meaning of life, but what makes the movie so enduring is that its two protagonists are . . . eating dinner! Otherwise, you might as well be watching Jaggi “Sadhguru” Vasudev doing his stand-up thing on YouTube.
The secret sauce to Masters week goes way beyond sauce. It’s the chow. It’s the cooked-to-order hamburgers in the caddie house on the driving range, beloved by Sergio Garcia and various other Continentals. It’s the peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream, the celebrated wine list (if you’re into that sort of thing), the sweet tea in the Press Building, but only on a once-a-day basis.
Fred Ridley, like a politician on the campaign trail, must pace himself, each year during Masters week. The club chairman, a slender, 68-year-old real-estate lawyer, has one command-performance dinner after another through the tournament. The women playing in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur have a dinner on the Friday before Masters Friday. The former champions have a dinner, hosted by the defending champion, on the Tuesday before the Thursday. (The club chairman is invited on an honorary you-better-behave basis.) There is a traditional Monday night dinner for the amateurs in the field. (This year it is being held on Wednesday night.) There is a Sunday night members’ dinner at which the new champion is toasted and feted.
Now is likely a good time to say, if you’re lucky enough to have a credential that gets you in the clubhouse, that the best meal imaginable, at Augusta National or almost anywhere else, is cooked breakfast in the grill room, adjacent to the men’s locker room. It’s the waffles. Also, the club logo on the coffee cups. Also, you’re at the Masters.
The club chairman — the ultimate overseer of the course, the tournament, the membership roll and, of course, the club’s extensive F&B program — was asked Wednesday about food tradition at the club.
“Do I have a favorite food item?” Ridley said. “Well, I like ‘em all, but I try to stay away. We have all the sandwiches that you have on the golf course down in the tournament meeting room, and I used to wander down there frequently. [Now] I try to stay away.
“That’s one of the great traditions of the Masters tournament, the pimento cheese and barbecue and egg-salad sandwiches, and we try to provide those at a reasonable price. It’s a great part of the tournament. I like ‘em all.”
The chairman didn’t even get into Berckmans Place, a gourmand’s paradise for the well-heeled and well-connected close to but hidden from the 5th green. It’s much beloved for its oysters, and you can have a putting contest before the main course arrives.
Ridley talked about the annual dinners for the amateur contestants and the past champions.
“I’ve been to quite a few more amateur dinners than I have champions dinners,” he said. “I’ve probably been to 40 amateur dinners. I have a picture in my office of the first one I ever attended and in the background, if you look very closely, sort of between two other heads, is Clifford Roberts. That was his last year as chairman. So that certainly is a memory that I’ll always cherish.”
That was at the 1976 Masters, when Ridley was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. Roberts was one of the club’s co-founders. In 1977, frail and ill, a new chairman was named, Bill Lane, the president of a high-end food company in Houston. In late September that year, Roberts took his own life, beside a pond on the club’s par-3 course, but not before having his favorite club waiter bring him a final dinner in his room in the clubhouse.
“As to the Champions Dinner, and I really believe this,” Ridley said, “there is no tradition at Augusta National that’s any more important.”
Ridley has now attended four of these meals, starting in 2018, his first year as chairman. “What really strikes me is the affection and the respect that each one of these gentlemen has for this place, and how proud they are to wear the green jacket. And also the camaraderie and the affection among themselves. It’s a group like none other.”
The ultimate club-within-a-club.
“Dustin Johnson was great,” Ridley said of the Tuesday-night host. “He is so happy and so proud to be a part of the Masters Club, and we had a great turnout. We had 31 past champions, several that were not here in November. It was just a really great celebration and one that I was very honored to be a part of as a guest.” That’s correct, the chairman of the club is there as a guest. The dinner, started by Ben Hogan, is for the winners.
For his dessert course, Johnson served peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream, along with apple pie. Peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream! Ideally, the ice cream is softened by the warmth of the cobbler. That’s when it’s at its best. If that selection doesn’t show the man’s good taste, nothing will.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com