Gary Player admits a lot has happened since his first Masters Champions Dinner way back in 1962. The room has changed, more champions have been added and hundreds of stories have been shared.
And Player, a three-time Masters winner, has his own stories to tell from those famous dinners. One of them involves the man who started it all: Ben Hogan.
The first Masters Champions Dinner was in 1952, when Hogan, who won in 1951 and again later in 1953, invited all of the other past champions to break bread together. He called it the “Masters Club,” where the only rule was to wear your green jacket. The gathering became a tradition.
Player’s first time attending was in 1962. He narrowly beat Charles Coe and Arnold Palmer in 1961 to win his first Masters title. Palmer needed to par the 18th to win that year, but he made double bogey and Player, at age 25, won the green jacket.
That win earned Player a spot in his inaugural Champions Dinner, which Player still remembers vividly. Recounting the story to GOLF.com while at the Berenberg Invitational last fall, Player said they were all sitting down as Horton Smith, a two-time Masters winner, started to pass something around.
“I saw this book coming around the table and everyone was signing this book as it came around the table,” Player said. “Horton Smith, the first winner of the Masters, came to me and I signed it, because I was the defending champion.”
Player said he was sitting next to Hogan, the man who started the whole dinner. Hogan had already won all nine of his majors at that point of his career, so he was a legend then just as he still is now.
“So anyway, I put the book in front of [Hogan],” said Player, who then knelt down, imitating Hogan at the table (check out the video above). “He sat like this, and he looked like this, with that mean look. He dropped his head. Then he picked up his head again. Eventually it was dead silence in the room and he took the book and he went, Pow! [slamming it] on the table. Everybody jumped out of their skin.
“I don’t like to do this because I don’t like to take the Lord’s name in vain,” Player continued. “[Hogan] said, ‘Who passed this goddamn book up here?’ And Horton Smith said, ‘Ben, I did. I got a junior at my club, a wonderful young boy, and we want to encourage him to play golf and I just thought this would be a marvelous print.’
“‘Horton,’ Hogan started, ‘this is the Masters Club, not a goddamn autograph-session club! Don’t you ever do that again.’ I said, man alive, I’m back at school!”
If autographs weren’t allowed then, things have changed since, as it’s now pretty common for past champions to spend some time signing items while at the dinner.
Player also shared a more recent memorable experience from the dinner, which happened just last year when Hideki Matsuyama was honored as the defending champion.
Player, who speaks some Japanese, wanted to say something to Matsuyama in the 2021 winner’s native tongue. But Matsuyama had the same idea and followed Player’s message by giving a quick speech to the room in English. Fred Couples recently said it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen at a Masters Champions Dinner, and Player was impressed too.
“[It] was probably more astounding than me doing it in Japanese, because he can’t speak English and I can speak quite a bit of Japanese, and he did it, as far as I know, by memory,” Player said. “And we all stood up and gave him a standing ovation. It was so warm and decent and nice.”