Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Big Night: The Champion's Dinner at The Masters

It's always fun to ask what if. What if you had your choice of playing golf on any course with any foursome—Where would you go and who would you include? What if you could visit one sporting event—What would it be and where? What if you could attend any dinner party—Where would that be and what would you eat? My question is a timely one. Why? Because the answers to those questions involve a singular location connected to a specific event. Welcome to Masters Week. And, tonight is the Champion's Dinner. It is a Big Night—a sacred meal in a sacred space. Here's why.

As written in Seven Days in Augusta, "It's one of the most exclusive dinner reservations on the planet, and it doesn't even take place on a Friday or Saturday night. It is, however, one night a year."

Tuesday night of Masters week, past champions gather in the Augusta National clubhouse for a dinner hosted by the defending champion. No coaches or caddies, WAGS or wannabes. No media either. To say its exclusive is short-sighted. It is men only. It's not a large crowed. It's not even subject to invitation. I don't think there's anything else like it—I can only imagine.

The Champions Dinner was first put into place during the 1952 tournament when defending champion Ben Hogan gave a dinner for the previous winners. Hogan proposed the formation of the Masters Club, with its membership limited to Masters champions. He wrote "my only stipulation is that you wear your green coat." 

Dustin Johnson, the 2020 champion posted the menu for tonight's gather via Instagram. Cannizzaro writes "the menu choices reveal something about the players and where he's from." For example, Scotland's Sandy Lyle served haggis and Germany's Bernhard Langer served Wiener Schnitzel. When I saw Dustin Johnson, the 2020 champion's menu posted via Instagram, I wasn't the least bit surprised. Though entertained by Pigs in a blanket as an appetizer, I pegged him for a fillet mignon all the way. Bubba Watson served the save menu in 2012 and 2014: caesar salad, grilled chicken breast with a side of green beans, mashed potatoes, corn, macaroni and cheese and cornbread. What more would you expect of a guy from Baghdad, Florida?!

And the greatest meals—the ones we remember and cherish—offer sustenance far beyond the food on our plate. We are nourished by the conversation, the stories and the word made flesh.

As creative and distinct as the menu may be, Phil Mickelson's favorite part of the night is of the Champions' Dinner is the conversation. He said "those dinners are usually the chance for the older guys to tell stories. Gary Player and Bob Goalby are great storytellers and they tell some fun ones. It's always fun when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Waton tell stories because they always have some good ones of players I watched growing up. Some of us will add things, but usually it's the older guys telling the stories. I like to listen that week."

Cannizzaro writes "Byron Nelson used to serve as the dinner's unofficial host for years before Sam Snead took over and then Ben Crenshaw. Mickelson credits Player with being a conversation starter who elicits stories from everyone.  It's always fun—lots of jokes and stories," Player said.

Thinking about the gathering that took place this evening—who is there and who is not—notably the five time champion Tiger Woods, I couldn't help but think of myself: Big Night. In the senior selective "Faith, Film and Fiction" students are tasked with watching this 1996 classic. They are invited to consider how this movie demonstrates a eucharistic celebration. My friend Chad, the teacher asks students to respond to the following. He writes

A “Catholic imagination” acknowledges a universe where sacred places and times can be experienced . What experiences/ memories do you have of sacramental meals? What about those meals helped you experience communion and the sacred? What made these meals different/ special?

I see these questions and I can only wonder: What if I were allowed to attend this dinner? 

I know my answer. I would teach this group about the spiritual event they are privy to. They are sharing a meal and sharing stories. What makes is meaningful and memorable is that the menu represents more than one man's personality or homeland. At this table, the elders are respected and revered. They share their wit and wisdom. Those gathered at table listen and learn and one day will have their chance to impart their own nourishment for the self and the soul. 

And in two days, competition will unfold on the greatest of golf courses. The players will make their mark. The crowds will respond. The beauty of Augusta National will shine. A new work of art awaits....

Photo Credits
DJ and flags, Champions Dinner and Table Setting
Menu: DJ's Instagram page!

Monday, April 5, 2021

We Are Easter People: Two Thoughts from Sports & Spirituality

Happy Easter. He is Risen. Alleluia! We are Easter people. I've heard it in the pews and from the pulpit. I say it to my students and serve myself the same reminder: we are Easter people. What does that mean? I have but two thoughts.

First are the words from the Holy Father. This man, whose lives up to the name of his Twitter handle @Pontifex—Bridge builder, the Jesuit who speaks and preaches about the culture of Encounter and models it, has offered an important reminder. He said:

“This is the first Easter message that I would offer you: it is always possible to begin anew,  because there is always a new life that God can awaken in us in spite of all our failures.  
Even from the rubble of our hearts -- each of us knows, knows the rubble of his own heart. From the rubble of our hearts, God can create a work of art; from the ruined remnants of our humanity, God can  prepare a new history. He never ceases to go ahead of us: in the cross of suffering, desolation and  death, and in the glory of a life that rises again, a history that changes, a hope that is reborn.” — Pope Francis, Easter Vigil 2021. 

What a timely reminder. In a year that has been rife with challenge, division and strife, let us seek to begin anew. Let us open our hearts so that this history can be born and this art can be seen. Thank you, Pope Francis.

Second is a realization and a reminder: we must spread Good News. We are hungry for it. Though we are enticed by negativity and gossip, it leaves us hollow. No, let us share our experiences of joy. Extend our stories of hope and delight. Bring light to others. To me, this is what it means to be an Easter person.

This realization on the most mysterious of Holy Days: Holy Saturday. I refer to the day after Jesus died as "no man's land." I can't  recall learning about how we are to approach this solemn day. To me, it feels like you're in a holding pattern. Do we make time for silence and more prayer? Ought we engage in some communal worship or preparation? My approach has always been to pay attention, to be mindful and intentional about my day. This isn't difficult for being an Easter person means we know how the story ends.

On Holy Saturday, I was at work, supervising a junior varsity girls' softball game. I don't know if I have ever attended a high school softball game (which is surprising to me). It's probably not most people's ideal way to spend a Saturday during Spring Break, especially when you don't know any of the girls on the team. I didn't mind.

With fans mindful of social distancing, I took advantage of one of the few open seats—directly behind home plate. I was immediately struck by the amount of clapping and cheering from both the crowd and the athletes on the field. I heard the parents next to me calling most batters by their number. "Let's go one-six! You got this!" and "way to hold off that pitch niner. Good eye niner." More clapping, more cheering, lots of girls being called "kid" by both the adults and the teens. This made me smile.

As a sports fan,  I love sitting next to fans who are engaged in the game. I am a glutton for good commentary or insight. To my surprise and delight, this game offered all of it. My ears were feasting on the language that was being spoken about the game unfolding on the field. 

One inning later, I found myself cheering and yelling myself. I clapped and even stood up at one point. I began to wonder: was it not attending live sports for nearly a year that prompted such enthusiasm and joy or was the culture of the game? Probably both.

But what does this have to do with being an Easter person. In the past year, things have been so divisive and challenging that I think we have all fallen into sharing our latest gripe. I am no exception. I dish them out and receive them willingly and regularly. But when asked about my Saturday at work, all I could do was the total opposite. 

I found myself sharing the story of softball. Surprised by the joy of what was happening on the field and received in the stands, I had good news to tell. 

It was interesting to see the body language of the people who received my report. They relaxed. They were armed for a complaint and met a compliment. My smile prompted their smile. It was fun to share.

Jesus came so that we might have life and have it abundantly. The chronicle of his life—the Gospels mean, "The Good News." Easter is the time to remember that even with the sacrifice, loss and tragedy of this life, faith, hope and love remain. Joy awaits. New life is possible. 

I encourage you to share the Holy Father's reminders and offer your own Good News. You might need to look for it or when it comes to you—pass it along. Happy Easter, people!

Photo Credits
Pope Francis
Thank you Jim for posting Pope Francis' message
Holy Saturday
Good News