A Seat At The Table
Expect civility to reign at the Champions Dinner, but the winners in the room are a reminder of the hunger it takes to be great
By Michael Bamberger
On Tuesday night the fellas will gather for their annual supper, the Champions Dinner, in a cozy room on the second floor of the Augusta National clubhouse. Scottie Scheffler, last year’s winner, will pick up the tab. (It’s like making a hole-in-one: Winner pays.) Ben Crenshaw, coated in ’84 and again in ’95, will preside. (He took over for Byron Nelson; Texas runs deep through Augusta National.) Fred Ridley, the club chairman, will be there, but as a guest. (That’s how the club chairmen get there—as guests!) This is a confab for the players, for the former winners. Everybody knows the dress code. Everybody knows the code, period. Nobody will be litigating LIV v. the PGA Tour during the soup course.
But everybody will be thinking about it, the LIV-Tour divide. Professional golf has never had a fight like this one, not even in the summer of ’68, when the touring pros broke off from the PGA of America and incorporated as American Professional Golfers, Inc. (You don’t often get it right the first time.) That was contentious. But the LIV-Tour divide goes way beyond that dispute.
At dinner, you’ll have an unlikely and large group of LIVsters: Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Charl Schwartzel and Bubba Watson.
The anti-LIVsters include Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, the activists Fred Couples and, in his own quiet way, Ben Crenshaw. Also (if only because they turned down LIV offers) Hideki Matsuyama and Adam Scott.
Plus Trevor Immelman, now a mouthpiece of the PGA Tour, in a manner of speaking, as all the prominent network golf broadcasters are. Even David Feherty, formerly of CBS, later with NBC, now on the LIV payroll.
Attachment is corruption. That is not an email warning from Microsoft. It’s a this-is-life insight from the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. He lived and died near the George Thomas course in Ojai, Calif.
I have my own corruption. I fell into golf’s web through the PGA Tour as I first experienced it in the 1970s. You can only have first love once. I know Fred (Ridley and Couples) and Davis (Love and Sezna) would say the same. It was everything about it, but for now I’ll just cite Don January (watched him in the ’70s), Al Geiberger (caddied for him in the ‘80s), Nick Price (rooted for him in the ‘90s). We all have our own attachments and the corruptions that walk lockstep with them.
I see this whole LIV thing as a litmus test for your value system. That is your value system. Joaquin Niemann, a 24-year-old Chilean golfer who turned pro as a teenager after being unable to gain entry to an American university, has no natural attachment to the PGA Tour and its traditions. (No guaranteed payday, big fields, four rounds with mid-tournament cut.) And I really do understand some (not all) of Mickelson’s frustration, that the PGA Tour operates as tax-exempt non-profit but surely doesn’t look like one. He wanted a bigger piece of the pie.
But how much is enough? How about working within the system that made you in the first place, no matter how long it might take? How about a sense of loyalty to the players—and sponsors and fans and volunteers—who were there before you collected your first check, who are there now and who will be there long after you’ve played your last shot?
LIV Golf, to me, is entertainment. Forty-eight players, three rounds, shotgun start and what-just-happened finishes? A nice exhibition. What drew me to the PGA Tour is the athletic competition. LIV Golf seems like more-more-more. I don’t know. Hogs get fat and pigs get slaughtered. Tiger Woods, for a while there, was actually hanging on every driving-range word Bryson DeChambeau said in his admirable quest to solve golf’s riddles. Now Tiger doesn’t even respond to Bryson’s texts.
DeChambeau made his own bed. Someday he may want a path back to the PGA Tour. But he won’t get to barrel through Texas on I-10, bound for P.V.B., F-l-a.
I don’t see DeChambeau ever joining the Tuesday Night Supper Club. The winner has to play some exquisite greenside pitch shots over yawning bunkers, and then there’s all that downhill putting. I just don’t see it. But who knows? That’s the beauty of this game, and every game. You can’t actually know.
If Francesco Molinari didn’t hit his third shot into the pond on 15 in the fourth round of the 2019 Masters, Tiger might still be looking for his fifth green jacket and Molinari could be having dinner tonight courtesy of S. Scheffler. But a tournament turns on weird little things. A coat. A dinner. A pitch shot that glances off a tree. A golf ball sinking to its murky death.
The winner at the Masters this year will make $3.5 million, whether it’s Cam Smith or Chris Kirk. Sam Snead used to sell his badge for $5,000 after hitting his ceremonial first shot. Professional golfers get paid, as they should. Or they seek a payday. That would be more accurate.
The fans are the ones who (ultimately) sign their checks and that’s not why we watch. But we can all fantasize about what it’s like to be in the club-within-the-club, to get to that dinner.
As Maxwell Smart used to say, and he was surely predicting Greg Norman when he said it, “Missed it by this much.
It was fun, watching him try. More than fun. It was what it’s all about.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]