KAPALUA, Hawaii – This exclusive field of champions might be the most anticipated event of the year. And it's nowhere near the Pacific shores along Kapalua.
The Masters Club is the formal name of the annual dinner Tuesday night at Augusta National during the Masters in April, and the guest list is restricted to Masters champions and Chairman Fred Ridley.
Scottie Scheffler is in charge of the menu as the reigning champion, and one moment last year illustrates how this might be a dinner unlike any other.
Scheffler and his wife took a short vacation to Tennessee, walked into a restaurant and were surprised to see Bubba Watson and his wife sitting at one of the tables. Watson is a two-time Masters champion. This will be his 11th dinner.
“I told him that I was just going to have a separate table for him in the corner by himself,” Scheffler said with a laugh. “Only kidding, obviously.”
Even so, imagine the mood this year.
Augusta National, while not thrilled with the great divide in the sport caused by the arrival of Saudi-funded LIV Golf, said it would keep its invitation criteria for the Masters.
Six former champions — Watson, Phil Mickelson, Charl Schwartzel, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson — are now part of LIV Golf.
All of them are suspended by the PGA Tour for joining a rival league without permission. According to court documents, Mickelson had been suspended for two months before he joined for recruiting players to LIV.
They will be in the room with Masters champions who have not looked upon kindly at the rebel league run by Greg Norman.
“They've turned their back on what has allowed them to get to this position,” five-time Masters champion Tiger Woods said in July.
In an interview last June with Golf.com, 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples said of Mickelson, “I don't think I'll ever talk to him again.”
Suddenly, what Scheffler decides for the menu isn't nearly as exciting as the flow of the dinner conversation.
“It's going to be really interesting, isn't it?” Jordan Spieth said. “I'm really interested in Phil, really interested to see what that's like. I don't know who he's going to talk to, what he's going to say, if he's going to go.”
Mickelson was not among the 31 Masters champions at the dinner last year. While he was serving a two-month PGA Tour suspension, that didn't affect his ability to the Masters. He chose not to go, just as he chose not to attend a champions dinner at the British Open at the suggestion of the R&A.
“It will be the first time we've all seen him in so long in a very interesting setting for that,” Spieth said.
The seating arrangement, according to various players, is like finding a spot in a high school cafeteria. Players tend to flock to their comfort zone and sit with friends. This might be a good time to have place cards.
What Jon Rahm, whose lone major is a U.S. Open, could give to be there.
“It's probably only funny to me, but I think the Masters Champions Dinner is going to be a little tense compared to how it's been in the past,” Rahm said. “So I keep thinking about it because I wish I could be there and just be able to see how things work out. Too bad the U.S. Open doesn’t have one of those.”
Scheffler is hopeful it won't be anything too theatrical.
Golf has been torn apart by the disruption, and by the lawsuits. Scheffler didn't have to wait for the Masters Club dinner to realize that. His locker at the Sentry Tournament of Champions is next to Cameron Smith, the defending champion who last year set a PGA Tour record to par at 34 under.
Smith has been suspended for joining LIV.
“It's a little strange, but golf will move on,” Scheffler said. “I think this stuff just takes time. Thing will heal and we'll see what happens.”
Even so, the first mix gathering with LIV players will be at Augusta National, and six of the 16 players eligible for the Masters are invited to dinner.
“I think for a few weeks a year we can put all that aside, especially with Augusta National being such a special place and with the history of the game,” Scheffler said. “I think we can put all our stuff aside and just get together for a fun meal, all in a room together and just kind of celebrate the game of golf and Augusta National and just hang out.”
Three-time champion Nick Faldo isn't so sure that will be the case.
“Things could be said,” he said last month at the PNC Championship. “I think a few of those guys will find it difficult not to say something. I would really assume it will be an atmosphere. It's got to be an atmosphere. There's a few hard-nosed guys who might want to say something. That will liven things up."
As Faldo turned to leave, he smiled and said, "It might be worth recording it.”
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