It was the great Gene Sarazen who once remarked: “You don’t come to Augusta to find your game. You come here because you’ve got one.”
The list of former Masters champions bears out the validity of the great man’s sentiment.
It reads like a “Who’s Who” of golf greats. Taking his rightful place among them is Sir Nick Faldo. Consider for a moment the identities of the three players who have won the first men’s major of the season more often: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer – arguably the three greatest and most influential players in the history of the game.
Only seventeen players in the history of the game have won The Masters more than once. Of those, only eight have won it at least three times. Make no mistake, whenever the history of the Masters is written, Sir Nick’s name will figure prominently.
Who better to ask for an insight into the most anticipated tournament in the game?
For those of us who’ll never experience it, how special is it to be able to call yourself a Masters champion?
It’s a huge honour. The quality of the way they do things there is just on another level. I remember going to Berckmans Place when it opened a few years ago. That’s one of their corporate hospitality areas. It’s tucked away among the trees beside the fifth fairway and, honestly, it’s as though they’ve built another clubhouse.
They’ve got restaurants in there, putting greens, a museum and everything is done to a standard that you cannot believe. It’s seven-star stuff. It really is. It’s a corporate ticket, so obviously it’s expensive, but you don’t pay for anything once you’re in and the service is magnificent and everybody’s attitude is amazing.
I actually got choked up because I thought about how proud I am to be part of an organisation that does things the way they do. People always say if you’re going to do something, do it right. Well, they exemplify that like you can’t believe.
It can be quite an intimidating place at first, can’t it? I mean that in the nicest possible way.
Yeah, you know it took me years to get comfortable enough to wear my green jacket outside of the clubhouse. It actually came from my son, Matthew. We were there, sitting on the back lawn and he had one of his mates with him and he said, ‘Where’s the jacket?’ I said, ‘It’s in my locker.’ He said, ‘Will you put it on?’ I said, ‘Sure, alright.’ So, I went and got it, put it on and we sat and had lunch.
That’s probably about ten years ago now but that was the first time I’d got comfortable really being part of it. It’s such a special thing. The fact you get to wear it because you’re a champion, you can wear it ‘til the day you roll over.
What do you remember of the first time you played the course? Did it live up to expectations?
It was really daunting. The green speeds, the slopes, you’ve got no idea where to hit it, where to bail out, that sort of thing. So, in that first year, you make all of those straight and obvious mistakes and come back the next year and try not to repeat them. It’s hard for anybody who hasn’t played there to appreciate just how blisteringly quick some of the greens can get. You get a six or eight-footer straight downhill but, because of the character of the greens, they just keep running at that percentage.
It’s never a case of, ‘With a bit of luck, it’ll just stop four feet past the hole.’ No, it won’t. That’s the scary part. If it’s going past, it’s going past. There’s an art to it. Four feet past at Augusta is very good. Seriously. If you’re really trying to get a perfect weight, there are going to be a lot of putts that you won’t be able to put a stroke on.
What’s the biggest surprise you get when you first walk onto the course?
The undulations, definitely. People don’t appreciate how it goes charging down the hill. You stand outside the clubhouse and it just goes straight down across the ninth. It’s a good couple of hundred-foot of a drop. So, if you miss a green, you can be a good eight or nine feet below it depending on the undulations. You can’t really grasp that watching on TV.
Do you have a favourite spot on the property?
I’d have to say the eleventh hole, for pretty obvious reasons! [Faldo won the first of three green jackets in 1989 with a birdie on the 11th, the second hole of a play-off with Scott Hoch. He had bogeyed the hole in all four rounds]. I did a piece for CBS last year on the 30th anniversary of that win. I walked down the hole wearing my jacket and that choked me up as well. I’m an emotional petal under certain circumstances! But that place will get you. It’s so special.
Augusta is well known for traditions. Do you have a favourite?
Yeah, I do actually. I’m very lucky, on the Sunday before the Masters, past winners are allowed to take a guest to play the course with them. People think that because I’ve won there, I’m a member. I’m actually not. So, if I want to go and play Augusta National tomorrow, I still have to play with a member. But on that Sunday, I’m allowed to bring a guest. So, I take my boy, Matthew, and we’ve been doing that now for around 12 years, since he turned 18.
We arrive the night before, get up early, have breakfast at the club, play 18 holes on the big course, have a spot of lunch and then go play the Par-3 course. It’s lovely. The best bit is arguably arriving first thing in the morning, picking your spot on the corner of the upstairs balcony in the clubhouse and looking out across the property, across all the umbrellas, the patrons slowly making their way in.
Trust me, that doesn’t get old. Yeah, it’s very, very cool.
The Champions’ Dinner is another tradition that people seem to get a kick out of. What’s it like inside that room?
Well, Sam Snead used to tell the most risqué stories and then Lord Byron [Nelson] would announce, ‘That’s the end of the meeting!’ Things went a bit quiet for a while but, you know what, it was probably after Arnold [Palmer] passed that it turned around again. That first year was particularly emotional. People were telling stories about Arnold and who he was, what he was like, the things he did. More than anything, we rib each other, which is a lot of fun.
You know, Jack will sit there and start talking about equalling the course record in 1965 on his way to winning his first green jacket, and he’ll go, ‘Well, you know, I thought the course was playing pretty easy’, and everyone boos him and throws their napkins at him, stuff like that.
I sit next to Gary [Player] and he’s always telling Hogan stories, which is always fun. It’s always a great evening.
You’ve been to thirty different dinners now. Which menus stand out as being particularly good?
[Ben] Crenshaw did a really good Texas BBQ. Vijay [Singh] has some friends who are Thai restaurateurs so he kind of started the tradition that we have crudités on the balcony before we go in for dinner, so we have lovely crab, sushi, ham and so on, which is always great.
For my third dinner, I flew over Harry Ramsden cod fillets, real chips, mushy peas and loads of Sarson’s vinegar. In my opinion, that’s the third best dinner we ever had because everybody had it and everybody loved it. It was really cool, especially when the waiter came round with the mushy peas and said [puts on thick American drawl], ‘Can I interest any of y’all in this green stuff?’ [laughs] I said, ‘That’s mushy peas!’ He said, ‘Mushy what?’
You would have to think that, as a three-time champion, your name will enter the discussion to become an honorary starter. Is that something you’d welcome?
Gee, are you kidding? I’d be honoured to accept that. I’m not sure what the plans are but I assume [Tom] Watson would be next in line. I’ve not heard anything but I would have thought he’ll join Jack and Gary soon.
As for me, I’m not sure if they’re waiting until I’m 70 or something but I hope they don’t wait too long because I want to be able to pound one out there, you know? But in all seriousness, as you can imagine, that would be an incredible honour. I’ve always said that as long as my legs still work, I’ll be at Augusta every year.
Pimento cheese sandwiches: thumbs up or thumbs down?
Yeah, they’re alright. They’re quite tangy but that’s fine, I like tangy cheese. I don’t like the white bread, though. Why have they got it on white bread? Now that I’m on a keto diet, I can’t have bread so I’d probably scrape the pimento out and have it on an avocado or something. [laughs]
What would you tell a player taking part in the Masters for the first time?
Go there early. Just get there and get the aura over and done with. The first time I went, I couldn’t handle it. I seem to remember getting in on the Monday after racing up from playing the Greater Greensboro Open and, honestly, it was just too much. So, I would go in early, get your bearings, study a few downhill putts and let yourself be a little overwhelmed by the whole place and all so that, when it’s time to get to work, that’s out of your system.
Finally, what one word would you choose to describe the Masters?
Well, being British, I’d have to go with a good British word, so how about ‘fabulous’? Because it really is.
This interview first appeared in issue 177 of bunkered. For our latest brilliant subscription offer, click here.