This spring, Sergio Garcia will enjoy a victory lap around Augusta National, where he’ll sport a fresh green jacket and bask in the afterglow of the greatest win of his career. And as the defending champion, he’ll also serve supper.
If every surviving past winner attends this year’s annual Champions Dinner, staged Tuesday night of tournament week, there will be 33 guests ranging in age from 24 (Jordan Spieth) to 95 (Doug Ford). The tradition began in 1952, when Ben Hogan invited his fellow past champs to convene for a meal. With nine of 11 surviving winners in attendance, Hogan pitched the idea of starting a “Masters club” that would be limited to green-jacket holders past, present and future. The vote passed handily, and Augusta founder Bob Jones and chairman Clifford Roberts were also admitted. Every year thereafter, the exclusive little group has staged a dinner, where members share loads of stories and laughs.
Gary Player still vividly recalls his fete in 1962, when, shortly after taking a seat at the table, Horton Smith, who’d won the inaugural Augusta National Invitation Tournament in 1934, passed around a menu for everyone to sign. He intended to gift it to a junior golfer he’d been mentoring.
“I signed and passed it to Mr. Hogan,” Player said. “The next thing I heard was those powerful hands slamming down on the wooden table, rattling the glasses and silverware. ‘What the hell is this?’ Mr. Hogan exclaimed. ‘This is the Masters Champions Dinner, not a goddamn autograph session!'”
Player learned the way of the club, but like many things Augusta, the dinner has evolved with the passage of time. Today, everyone at the table exchanges menus, flags and other memorabilia to be signed for various charities. There have also been poignant moments. Last year, at the first dinner since Arnold Palmer’s passing, several members kicked off the night by sharing personal memories of the King.
Defending champions, as hosts of the meals, pick up the check — and in the ’80s they began tailoring menus to reflect their respective homelands. In 1986, Germany’s Bernhard Langer served Wiener schnitzel and spaetzle. In ’91, England’s Nick Faldo dished out shepherd’s pie. Some spreads have left guests scrambling to the grillroom to place backup orders — like in 1989, when Scotsman Sandy Lyle wore a kilt and served haggis and turnips. Other champs have kept it simple. In ’98, a 22-year-old Tiger Woods offered up burgers and fries, and Texan Jordan Spieth went the brisket-and-ribs route in 2016.
Given the meat-and-potatoes milieu, it comes as a surprise that maybe the most lustily inhaled feast was also one of the most exotic. It was staged ahead of the 2001 Masters, when, to prepare his custom meal, Fiji-born Vijay Singh brought in two old friends: the husband-and-wife team of Charlie and Nan Niyomkul, owners of Atlanta’s elegant Nan Thai Fine Dining.
“Vijay and I used to have long talks about the Masters dinner. We are foreigners, so we didn’t know much about it,” remembers Charlie, who grew up in a small village 200 miles north of Bangkok. “Vijay said, ‘I don’t care. When I win, you and Nan are going to come and introduce everyone to Thai food.'”
And indeed, following Singh’s 2000 victory, the club, in a rare concession, opened its kitchen to the Niyomkuls. Charlie and Nan flew in every ingredient from Thailand, including the flowers for each table. For two nights leading up to the main event, the couple didn’t sleep a wink. “Imagine it from my shoes,” Charlie says. “Jack Nicklaus is going to eat a meal cooked by Nan and Charlie. It’s unbelievable.”
The meal, served family-style, would turn out to be one for the books. Chicken Panang curry (Vijay’s favorite). Sea scallops in garlic sauce. Chilean sea bass with a spicy glaze. Initially, Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer balked and placed orders with the grillroom. But soon everyone, including the fussiest eaters, were digging in.
“You know my diet and healthy-choice approach,” Player says. “I didn’t usually eat spicy dishes, but I really enjoyed Vijay’s selection.”
At meal’s end, the Niyomkuls were summoned from the kitchen. Byron Nelson stood up and declared it the best Champions Dinner in 50 years. “And Mr. Nelson can eat!” Charlie says.
Then the golfers, no strangers to receiving accolades from fans, stood and applauded their chefs. Today, Player remembers the night fondly. “I think I spent more of the next 24 hours on the loo than on the course,” he says, laughing. “But each dinner is a lot of fun, and Vijay’s was unique to his heritage, which was special.”
Before their triumph at Augusta National, the Niyomkuls were already top chefs, but word of the Masters dinner propelled their business to new heights. A few weeks after that ’01 Masters, Byron Nelson rang Nan Thai Fine Dining. He was hungry for more Thai food. That night, Lord Byron and his wife, Peggy, flew from Dallas to Atlanta for another lavish spread of Charlie and Nan delicacies. Today, the restaurant hosts a steady flow of Thai-curious Tour pros, among them Spieth, Garcia, Adam Scott and Rickie Fowler.
“I had so much fun that day,” Charlie says. “They didn’t want us to take pictures, but we brought in a camera and took a few.” Despite violating the club’s notorious no-camera policy, many of those shots now adorn the walls of their eatery. Because Charlie and Nan Niyomkul not only know how to make a mean curry, they know how to cook the rulebook.