Who: Jack Nicklaus
What: a record sixth victory in the Masters golf tournament
Where: Augusta National golf course, Atlanta, Georgia
When: April 13, 1986
The legendary Masters tournament in 1986 still brings tears to the eyes of grown men with its mere mention.
In 1986, Jack Nicklaus was a living legend, and the Masters had long been his personal fief. The victor in a ridiculous 19 majors, he had already won the Masters itself a record 5 times, including establishing the Augusta National course record of 271 in his 1965 victory.
But in 1986, Nicklaus was also 46 years old. He was well past his prime, and everyone knew it. Heck, even he knew it, and was concentrating more and more time on his business endeavors rather than his golf game while he waited to become eligible for the Senior Tour. Nicklaus had not won the Masters in 11 years, and in fact had not won a tournament of any kind in the past two years. Entering the Masters tournament, Nicklaus sat at a cool 160th place on the PGA money list, behind some guy named Don Halldorson. Out of the first 7 tournaments of the year he missed the cut three times and withdrew from a fourth. But most of all Nicklaus was simply too old to be competitive with a flashy new breed of young hotshots. When Nicklaus had won his first Masters way back in 1963, his current rivals Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros, and Tom Kite had been 13, 8, and 5 years old respectively.
A week before the 1986 edition of the Masters, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote an article calling Nicklaus "done, washed up, through" and giving him no chance to win. Nicklaus' first reaction was agreement. But then he began to stew:
"I kept thinking all week, 'Through, washed up, huh?' I sizzled for a while. But then I said to myself, 'I'm not going to quit now, playing the way I'm playing. I've played too well, too long to let a shorter period of bad golf be my last.'"
But if the Golden Bear was fired up for the tournament, he certainly didn't show it with lackluster first two rounds of 74 and 71. Nicklaus hit a few nice drives here and there, but his putting was atrocious. On Thursday he had had 11 putts under 15 feet, but sank only one and on Friday he declared, ""If I could just putt, I might just scare somebody. Maybe me." After watching Nicklaus' struggles the first two days, CBS analyst Ken Venturi told USA Today, "Jack's got to start thinking about when it is time to retire."
Meanwhile, other golfers people actually still paid attention to were putting up strong performances, particularly the swashbuckling Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros, who shot a sparkling 68 on Friday to combine with his first-round 71 for a one-shot lead. Then on a gorgeous windless Saturday, when Tom Watson said he found the fabled course as "defenseless as I've ever seen it," Nick Price put on a golfing clinic, playing a flawless game to set a new course record of 63. Nicklaus himself shot an outstanding 69, but duly noted that it was "the first time I've broken 70 since I can't remember when." Overall, Greg Norman held the lead, at 70-72-68, with Nicklaus sitting a harmless and hopeless four strokes back, in a tie for ninth place, while six other golfers were within two shots of the lead, including Price, Ballesteros, Watson, and Kite.
Early Sunday morning, Nicklaus' son Steve called him. "Well, Pop, what's it going to take?" He asked. Nicklaus though for a moment, before answering, "Sixty-six will tie and 65 will win." Sixty-five. A virtually impossible score, even for the best golfers on the best days of their lives, let alone a 46-year-old. But Steve Nicklaus simply replied, "Well, go ahead and do it."
But as Sunday's round began, Nicklaus looked no different than he had on Friday and Saturday. Driving well, but putting sloppily, he missed four-foot putts on the 4th and the 6th. When he got to the 9th tee, Nicklaus was sill two shots under par, exactly where he started the day, only now he was five shots behind the leader Norman instead of four. The director of the CBS television broadcast had been ordered not to even show Nicklaus' round and to focus on the leaders instead.
But then something strange happened. Jack Nicklaus made a birdie putt, holing the 9th from 11 feet to record his first birdie of the day. He followed it up with a fabulous 25 foot putt on the 10th hole to pull within a still-distant four strokes of the lead. He should have been three out, but Ballesteros had eagled with a wedge shot from 40 feet at the 8th to grab the lead, while even more incredibly, his partner Kite eagled from 80 feet to stay within a shot.
But when Ballesteros bogeyed on hole 9, Nicklaus answered with a birdie on the first hole of Amen Corner, No. 11, to pull within two shots of the lead. Suddenly, a buzz welled up in the Augusta crowd. The Golden Bear was on the charge.
But Nicklaus promptly bogeyed with a 4 on the short 12th hole, immediately dimming any hopes of a victory. Nicklaus recalls this moment as the turning point of the match for him:
"I don't know why, but it really got me going. I knew I couldn't play defensive with the rest of the course. I knew I needed to be aggressive."
He was now back to 3 shots out.
Nicklaus now walked up to the tee of the par-5 13th hole, the heart of Amen Corner, where so many green-jacket dreams had been tragically shattered, and banged a three wood so close to the trees that his son and caddie Jackie complained that "shots like that are a little too much for a 24-year-old heart, Dad." Nicklaus then hit a 3 iron again to 30 feet and two-putted for birdie. Two back again.
But Ballesteros still had the magic. Amazingly, on his turn at No. 13, he got a 6 iron to drift within 8 feet on his second shot and holed the putt for his amazing second eagle of the day. Kite, in second, was now two shots out, with Nicklaus way back four behind. Here was your winner, folks. Wise sportswriters began typing up their Seve Ballesteros victory stories.
By now Nicklaus was on the 15th. He heard what Ballasteros had done on 13, and buoyed by desperation, launched a mammoth 298-yard drive. With 202 yards to go and the tournament hanging in the balance, Nicklaus tuned to Jackie and said, "You think a '3' would go very far here?" Jackie replied,
"Let's see it."
Whereupon Nicklaus launched a 4 iron
to 12 feet and nailed the putt for exactly that - a 3 and an eagle. Two back.
By now, word-of-mouth had spread and everyone knew what was happening. A massive horde of fans converged around Nicklaus' holes, and the cheers could be heard by every golfer on the course. As Nicklaus slowly walked from the 15th green to the 16th tee, the roar from the gallery was like a rolling wave of thunder.
Seve Ballasteros was now walking up the fairway on the 15th. Just as he was about to hit his second shot, a huge roar went up on the par-3 16th, where Nicklaus' first shot had landed 3 feet from the pin. Ballesteros cracked, and plunked the shot into the water trap. "He had an awkward lie up on a knob," Ballesteros's partner Kite remembered, "It was a tough situation: The lie, the circumstance, what Nicklaus was doing, the noise. It was so noisy we couldn't even hear each other."
But while Ballesteros's Masters dream was sinking with his ball beneath the green-dyed water of Augusta, Kite was apparently unfazed by the noise, and birdied the hole to pull into a three-way tie for the lead with Nicklaus and Ballesteros at 8 under. Meanwhile, Norman had rallied back from a double bogey on 10 to pull within 2 shots of the lead.
On the par-4 17th, Nicklaus drove to the left rough and then pitched to 11 feet. But now such putts, which had plagued Nicklaus all weekend and even that same morning, had become automatic. "Dead center," Nicklaus recalled. He now was in sole possession of the lead by a stroke.
Minutes later, a shaken Ballesteros three-putted at 17 for a bogey, but Kite was still coming on strong, sinking for par from the back of the green, and Norman's rally continued with birdies on 15 and 16. Nicklaus was still one up, now over Kite and Norman.
18 was ho-hum for Nicklaus. He drove to the front of the green, almost holed a 40 foot putt, and then tapped in for par. The crowd, thrilled to its socks, thundered with approval as Nicklaus hugged Jackie. He had shot exactly 65, the number he had predicted he would need to win. Most incredibly of all, he had stroked an unbelievable 30 on the back nine, including five birdies and the eagle.
Now, the waiting began.
On the 18th, Kite drove to within 12 feet. In the galleries and on couches across the nation, everyone held their collective breath as Kite lined up for a birdie putt and a tie for the lead.
"I made the putt," Kite said. "It just didn't go in. Honest to God...I made it so many times in the practice rounds - seven or eight times - and it never broke left once."
It broke left. Kite was done.
Meanwhile on 17, Norman made an impossible blind shot over a hill to 12 feet, and sank the putt for a tie with Nicklaus at 9 under par. Now all he needed was a par on 18 to tie and a birdie to win. In the midst of utter bedlam, Norman chose a 3 wood at the 18th tee. His drive was straight and true. Norman decided to go for the win.
The only problem with this decision was it left him holding the cursed 4 iron which had been responsible for his double bogey on 10. "I was going for the flag," Norman explained. "I was going for the birdie and the win. It was the first time all week I let my ego get the best of me." His second shot sliced left, deep into the gallery, and he missed left on a 16-foot attempt to save par.
Jack Nicklaus then put on the green jacket as Masters champion for a record sixth and final time, and anyone who has ever been discriminated on the basis of age, called "over the hill," or even just felt a bit past their prime, is celebrating still.