Cowboy boots? Speakers? The PGA Champions Dinner includes one of the coolest traditions in golf

The 2015 PGA champions dinner

The 2015 PGA Championship Champions Dinner at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis.

PGA of America

When Phil Mickelson got his turn nearly two decades ago, he furnished everyone with Fabergé martini glasses. Padraig Harrington, for his part, steered clear of stemware. He distributed Irish drums.

In the case of Y.E. Yang, it was Korean ceramics. Rory McIlroy went with wireless Bose speakers. Brooks Koepka came bearing designer wallets.

And Rich Beem? Ostrich-leather cowboy boots.

So it has gone throughout the decades. A wide range of players. An array of items. All of them linked by an annual tradition that will unfold again this Tuesday evening.

Much like the Masters, the PGA Championship has a pre-tournament champions dinner, hosted by the previous year’s winner, whose role is more expansive than that of his Masters counterpart

Not only does he pick the menu. He also doles out gifts. 

The origins of the dinner date to 1965 (more on that in a minute). When the gift-giving got started is more difficult to say; institutional memories are hazy. But most agree that it was probably sometime in the early 1990s. And there’s no doubt the practice was firmly established by the time David Toms got a chance to host.

“I’d heard about the dinner over the years, but I can’t say I knew a ton about it,” Toms says. “That’s probably because I’d never been invited.”

Then, in 2001, Toms earned that honor by claiming the Wanamaker Trophy at Atlanta Athletic Club, edging Mickelson by a shot with a crafty scramble-par on the final hole. With that win, Toms showed off his touch. The next year, at the dinner, he showed off his taste, gifting his peers with alligator-skin belts in a nod to his native Louisiana. For the menu, Toms tapped the bayou, too, hiring Emeril Lagasse, the famed Big Easy chef, to craft a multi-course extravaganza.

“It was really nice, except that (Emeril) has garlic in pretty much everything he does, so we had to make something special for Tiger,” Toms says. “I’m not sure what it was, but it wasn’t going to work for him. I guess Tiger was allergic to it or something.”

The 2022 PGA champions dinner
The 2022 dinner at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla. PGA of America

Woods was coming off two consecutive stints as host. In 2000, his fellow champions received from him wooden clocks with four time zones, pegged to the cities staging that year’s majors. In 2001, he opted for Tiffany sterling necklaces and bracelets, along with cigar humidors — fitting for a man who so often smoked the field.

Tiger’s choice of necklaces tells you something else about the occasion, too. Unlike at the Masters dinner, the PGA Championship meal is family-friendly. Spouses are welcome. It is more relaxed.

The kickback atmosphere may owe something to its fun-loving roots. 

The first dinner came about in 1965 when PGA of America officials asked defending champion Bobby Nichols if he would preside over a meal. Nichols said he would be honored. Nineteen past champions attended.

“It was a wonderful evening,” Nichols would recall later. Bryon Nelson, Paul Runyan and Gene Sarazen were there. The only past champ missing was Ben Hogan.

The menu was basic: steak, potatoes, salad, dessert. But Nichols spiced up the night by pulling a prank on Sam Snead. As the dinner drew to a close, Nichols stood up and announced that he wanted to help the PGA of America pay for the dinner.

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“I think one of our past champions should help us do that,” Nichols said. We will be going retroactive to 1942 and that begins with Sam Snead.”

Snead sprang up from the table, yelled, “B.S!” and bolted for the exit. The room erupted. Snead caught on and returned to his seat but did not open his wallet.

These days, the PGA of America still funds the dinner with a stipend — not that modern major winners need much financial help. The hosts like to go all out. In 2021, at Kiawah Island, defending champion Collin Morikawa selected high-end barbecue utensils as his gift and a surf-and-turf blowout for his menu, which opened with Harding Park clam chowder (a cap-tip to the site of his 2020 victory), moved on to pan-seared cobia and fried chicken and peaked with platters of sliced porterhouse steaks with a wonderland of sides, presented, family-style, on the table.

“It was kind of like how much food can you throw at everyone,” Morikawa said at the time.

Mickelson missed last year’s event, so the PGA of America gifted fire pits on his behalf. On Tuesday evening, at Oak Hill, Justin Thomas will assume the hosting duties for the second time. In his first go-around, in 2018, Thomas put forth a menu of filet mignon and Chilean sea bass while bestowing upon his peers personalized etched bourbon bottles and Louisiana stoneware platters. 

That’s a tough act to follow, but it’s still easier than a title defense.

Josh Sens Editor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.

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