Nicklaus, Watson & Player share some Masters memories

John Shortt

Masters champions and honorary starters Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson - Masters media

John Shortt

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In a tournament like no other, with tradition unlike any other, the stories of old give us a flavour of what it used be like around Augusta National. It says a lot that every year there are previously unheard of tales from the Champions Dinner and player reminiscences that give us some insight into The Masters history.

2023 was no exception!

In their press conference, the ceremonial starters, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson, who between them have played in 140 Masters Tournaments and won 11, regaled the world media with stories of old and some of the standouts came when they were asked about their favourite Champions Dinner memories.

Tom Watson: “I think one of my favourite stories was last year at the dinner. The emcee, Ben Crenshaw, asked if anybody had any comments, and there was silence. So I started a story about Doug Ford and how he won the tournament. The year before that, before Doug passed away, he was over in the corner in the Champions Locker Room, and I went over there to sit by him, and I said, How you feeling? And he said, Not worth a — like this. You know how Doug was.

“I said, Tell me about how you won your Masters Tournament. And he proceeded to describe how he buried it in the left bunker, how he couldn’t play through. He had a two-shot lead, and he played up the slope. He said, ‘I had to hit it up the slope’. I said, How did you do? He said, ‘I holed it’. He made three and won by three.

“Then Ben asked for another, more comments, and still kind of silence, so I piped up, and I said, Jack, tell us about the last nine holes of 1986, and he did. And you could have heard a pin drop. All the champions were there listening to the shot-by-shot that Jack played. Because we all have been in that position before. We all won the tournament. We all knew the pressure. We all knew the shots he had to play. And here he is, talking about shot-by-shot on the last nine holes.

“That was my favourite part of any of the dinners.”

For Jack Nicklaus, he was impressed when Gary Player made a speech in Japanese to Hideki Matsuyama and even more so, when Matsuyama made his own speech in English (as he speaks no English), “Gary finished that same dinner off with Hideki, wasn’t it, and made a speech in Japanese to him, which I thought was pretty darned special.”

Tom Watson gave a little more background to it though and it sounds like Hideki was pretty pleased when he was finished!

“Hideki is sitting up there like this, his eyes wide open, and trying to remember and recite in English the whole time, and had a beautiful speech. And after it was over he bent his head down, and, whew, like that. We all clapped. We actually stood up and gave him a standing-o. It was very special.”

As for Player, well he was always looking for an edge and having been seated beside the great Bobby Jones he took his chance to ask a question about the 3rd hole.

“My greatest experience was with Bobby Jones. He was riddled with arthritis, and, I mean, he was like that (crooked fingers). And he asked me to put the fork between his fingers. And when I cut his meat — and he was bent over, and I cut his meat. The only way he could eat it was to jab the fork in the steak and eat it. I took the opportunity, I said, “Mr. Jones, may I ask you a question, sir?”

“He says, ‘By all means.’

“Now, you know that third hole, the little neck on the left, if you put the ball on that pin there, you’ve hit the shot of your lifetime because if you’re short, you roll way back down the hill and if you’re too long, you have an extremely difficult shot. And I said, ‘Mr. Jones, you know, I can never birdie the third hole.’

“And he just said, “You’re not supposed to birdie the third hole.’”

Of course the green jacket is the prize they’re all playing for this week and while in recent years we’ve seen the likes of Phil Mickelson donning it while eating at a takeaway burger joint, it didn’t always used to be like that with Player, having been the first international to win The Masters, relaying a story of taking the jacket back to South Africa with him, followed by a call from the Chairman!

“In 1961, I win the tournament, and obviously being the first international player to win it, I was extremely excited, to say the least. And so I take the jacket, I’m going back to South Africa the next day, and I take it with me. Now, in those days, unlike today, they go to “Good Morning America” and go out to dinner with the jacket, etc., etc.

“I took the jacket back home. Three days later, the phone goes, ‘Good morning, Gary, this is Clifford Roberts. Did you take the jacket back home?’

“I said, ‘I did, Mr. Roberts.’

‘Well, nobody ever takes the jacket off the ground.’

“I thought very quickly. I said, ‘Mr. Roberts, why don’t you come and fetch it.’

“He did see the funny side of it. He said to me, ‘But don’t ever wear it in public.’

“I said, ‘I promise you, I won’t.’ And I put it in a plastic bag. And it’s certainly changed today. Of course, change is the price of survival. It’s a vast different story today.”

As for Watson and Nicklaus, well they both got presented with a jacket that was too large and in fact Nicklaus didn’t get ‘his own’ green jacket until after he’d won it 6 times!

“When I (Watson) first won the tournament in 1977, they donned the green jacket on me down there in Butler Cabin, and it was a 44 long. It came down below my fingertips like this. Did I care? Not in the least. I’d wear a tent, as long as it’s the green jacket. That’s my story.”

“Well, most of you’ve heard my (Nicklaus) story. I had a 46 long they put on me, and I was a 43 regular. The next year I came back and Tom Dewey, former governor of New York that ran for presidency, his was in my locker, and fit me perfectly. I won the Masters a few times after that, and I kept wearing Tom Dewey’s coat.

“Finally in 1998 a week before the tournament I was having lunch with Jack Stevens, and I told him the story that I didn’t have a green jacket and never had a green jacket.

“He said, ‘What?’

“I said, ‘No, I’ve won the tournament five times, six times and nobody has ever given me a green jacket.’ So I went home, came back over the weekend, and there was a note in my locker that said: You will go to the pro shop and you will be fit for your green jacket.”

It’s all about the jacket as they say here in Augusta and there’s no doubt that whoever gets presented one this week will make sure it fits!

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