30th Anniversary of Nicklaus’ Win for the Ages (Parts I & II)
Jack Nicklaus arrived at the 1986 Masters as a 46-year old, six years removed from his last major championship (1980 PGA). Several sports writers had written Nicklaus off, arguing that the Golden Bear had gone into hibernation. American golf also was sliding into the doldrums, Nicklaus and Tom Watson were aging (Watson, even though he was only 36 years old, would never win another major championship) and America had suffered defeat to the European team at the 1985 Ryder Cup, a preview of what would become European dominance in the event over the past few decades.
Foreign players had become perennial threats at Augusta National. The dashing Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros, a two-time champion had supplanted Nicklaus as the youngest Masters winner after his title in 1980. Masters Champion German Bernhard Langer was another solid international player as were Australian Greg Norman and a young Brit named Nick Faldo.
In short, Nicklaus wasn’t on anyone’s short list of “players to beat” when he teed it up in Thursday’s first round. A two over par 74 didn’t do much to reverse that narrative. Nicklaus would need a solid second round just to make the cut. Nicklaus fired a one under par 71 on Friday to make the weekend. Finally, early on Saturday, the putts began to fall for Nicklaus who fired three under 69 on “moving day”. The round propelled Nicklaus into a tie for 9th place, four shots off the lead. The third round belonged to Nick Price who fired a new course record 63. Price was a single shot back of Greg Norman in a group of players that included Ballesteros. Nicklaus was 4 shots back of Norman’s lead at 2 under par.
Sunday’s final round would develop into arguably the greatest round in major championship history. Ballesteros began hot, holing his third shot for an eagle at the par 5 8th hole. Nicklaus’ hopes for a Sunday charge began slowly as Nicklaus posted even par through 8 holes, his hopes of a historic Sunday charge fading quickly.
Then, the putts that failed to drop all week suddenly began to fall. Nicklaus birdied the difficult 9th hole and added birdies by holing lengthy putts at 10 and then the 11th, perhaps the most difficult hole at Augusta National. Still, Nicklaus’ move seemed too little too late. Then, a 5-foot par putt got knocked off line by a spike mark on the par 3 12th, killing Nicklaus’ momentum.
Behind Nicklaus, American Tom Kite was charging and after a hot start, while round 3 leader Norman suffered a disastrous double bogey 6 at 10.
Nicklaus got back on track with a birdie on 13 and a nice up and down for par on 14. Ballesteros eagled 13 after a gorgeous iron shot from the fairway settled just 7 feet from the pin. Ballesteros was all smiles and seemed to accept congratulations from his brother, who was caddying for him that week, as they made their way to the next hole.
Nicklaus stood in the fairway at the par 5 15th knowing he needed something special. His son Jackie told him “3 would go a long way here”, meaning his father really needed an eagle in order to realistically contend for the championship. Nicklaus hit a soaring 4 iron that came to rest 12 feet from the cup on the massive, firm 15th green. Nicklaus’ putt rolled true and legendary CBS commentator Ben Wright noted, “The battle is joined. My goodness. There is life in the old bear yet.” When Nicklaus’ putt fell into the cup, the loudest roar of the day, and the first of two more, reverberated off of Augusta National’s massive pine trees. Nick Price, playing a few holes behind Nicklaus with Greg Norman called it the most electric atmosphere he’d even been a part of – “like six or seven football games going on at once.”
Perhaps rattled by the crowd’s reaction to Nicklaus’ charge, Ballesteros pulled his 4-iron at the 15th into the pond left of the green. He then failed to get up and down from the drop area, making a costly bogey 6 on the greatest par 5 in major championship golf.
Meanwhile, playing alongside Ballesteros, American Tom Kite was moving his way into contention. Kite made birdie to Ballesteros’ bogey at 15 and moved into a three-way tie for he lead, 2 shots ahead of Nicklaus.
Meanwhile, just a few paces from the 15th green, Nicklaus hit another magnificent high mid-iron to the 16th hole and watched the slow and take the natural slope of the green towards the pin, setting up a short, but tricky three-footer for another birdie. By now, with his confidence building, Nicklaus slammed the putt in the back of the cup and moved within a shot of the lead.
Nicklaus then hit his first loose shot on the back 9, missing the fairway badly at the par 4 17th hole. Lady Luck was smiling on Nicklaus as his ball came to rest on a flat level lie and, more importantly, with a clear shot to the green. Nicklaus’ next shot wasn’t his best, leaving him a lightning fast 18-foot curling, downhill putt for another birdie. Nicklaus hit his putt and when the ball was within a couple feet of the cup, walked it in and helped Verne Lundquist make broadcasting history with him emphatic, “Yes Sir!”
Nicklaus was now 9 under par and in sole possession of the lead for the first time at the 50th annual Masters Championship. Nicklaus still needed some help as both Tom Kite and Greg Norman, largely forgotten after his double bogey on 10, remained within striking distance.
Kite narrowly missed a 12-foot birdie putt on 18, a putt he still can’t believe didn’t break the right way 30 years later. Norman, playing with Price, made birdies at 14, 15 and 16 and then hit a punch shot to 8th feet from the trees on the 17th hole. Norman made the putt and stood on the tee at the 18th hole realizing he could win his first major title by birdieing the final 5 holes of the tournament. After a perfect tee-shot, Norman pushed his 4 iron on the uphill final hole. Norman chipped down to 15 feet but badly missed his par putt that would have forced a sudden death playoff.
At age 46, Nicklaus found himself a Masters Champion for a 6th time, firing a course record 30 on the back nine. Nick Price, one of the classiest guys in golf, said it ranked with his own 3 major championship wins as his favorite moment in golf.1998’s Last Stand.
Remarkably, Nicklaus’ magic wasn’t over at Augusta National. More than a decade later in 1998, at the age of 58, Nicklaus positioned himself to turn back the clock one more time. Viewers watched Jim Nantz open the telecast by telling the fans at home, “you aren’t going to believe” what Jack Nicklaus is doing at Augusta National this afternoon. Somehow, someway, in his 40th Masters appearance Jack Nicklaus was tearing up Augusta National’s front-nine, putting himself in position to win a 7th Green Jacket and his 19th professional major championship.
Reality cruelly intervened on the back nine as a couple of putts lipped out, forcing Nicklaus to settle for a final round 68 and a 6th place finish in the tournament that was won by American Mark O’Meara.