25 years have passed since perhaps the greatest major championship in golf’s history.
Is that possible?
Heading into the 1986 Masters, Jack Nicklaus was 46 years old and winding down his career. He hadn’t won a PGA event in two years and hadn’t won a major in six years. As much as perhaps the greatest golfer in the history of the game can be, Nicklaus was not much more than an afterthought heading into the 50th Masters that year.
Names like Greg Norman, Tom Kite, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Ben Crenshaw were the real story. Nicklaus, although not at the non-competitive level of the honorary starters that year, Gene Sarazan and Sam Snead, had little chance of winning on that weekend in April.
For the first two rounds of the 1986 Masters, that played out true to form. Nicklaus shot a 74 on Thursday and a 71 on Friday. He had made the cut, but was well back of the leader board. Seve Ballesteros led the pack after 36 holes.
In a new book coming out this March from author Tom Clavin entitled One for the Ages (Chicago Review Press), which relives the four days of the 1986 Masters in full detail, author Clavin recounts a quote from then third year-pro Corey Pavin back in 1986.
“I think the players now respect him more for what he has done and what he has meant to golf than they respect him for his game,” said Pavin about Nicklaus. “If I were going head to head with him, I wouldn’t be afraid of him or fear anything supernatural. I think when he was playing ten years ago he was a man to fear because of the way he was playing.”
Tom Kite was asked if he thought Jack could win the Masters. “I don’t think he can win any tournament,” Kite said.
After his round of 71 on Friday, which followed his opening round of 74, Nicklaus was frustrated when he talked to the media.
“I was really down on myself for shooting a 74 yesterday because I played pretty well,” Jack said. “But I didn’t make any putts. And then today I hit the ball pretty well, maybe a couple of little putts, not much, but shot a 71, which wasn’t any big deal.”
Although Jack was only six shots back heading into the third round, it seemed like more. Too many world class golfers (all younger) were ahead of him. In addition to the leader Ballesteros, some of the names ahead of him included Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Bernhard Langer, Ben Crenshaw, Johnny Miller, Bob Tway and Corey Pavin.
Interesting to note, some other big names had missed the cut that year and would not be playing on the weekend. This group included Hal Sutton, Hale Irwin, Ray Floyd and Craig Stadler.
Saturday morning dawned overcast and humid, but the winds that had bothered many of the players the first couple of days were gone.
Jack, going out well ahead of the leaders, played well, breaking 70 to shoot a 69. He had clawed within four of the leader, who was now Greg Norman. However, despite being only four back, he trailed the likes of Norman, Ballesteros, Langer, Watson and Kite.
Nicklaus may not have had a lot of believers, even after his Saturday round, but he did have a few. One of them was his main rival the last ten years of his career, and a man ahead of Nicklaus on the leader board heading into Sunday, Tom Watson.
Watson, 24 years later, told author Tom Clavin in One For The Ages, “I saw no reason why Jack couldn’t do it, even at 46 years old. Especially at Augusta National. No reason at all….. When you’ve won a tournament, you know what it takes to win it again, and in Jack’s case he had already won the Masters five times.”
To start the final round Jack played even par through the first eight holes, which, although he wasn’t hurting himself, wasn’t doing much for his chances of moving up the leader board.
It was on the ninth hole that the Golden Bear began to make his move. He birdied the ninth, 10th and 11th, and suddenly people started to believe.
Sandy Lyle was Jack’s playing partner for that final round, and Lyle has a hundred stories about that day playing with Nicklaus. One of them happened on 13, when Jack turned to Lyle and said, “Did you hear what Jackie just said to me?” Jackie, Jack’s son, was on the bag that weekend as his caddie. “He says this is too much for his young heart to handle? What about me? I’m 46.”
Jack birdied the 13th, and then after his eagle putt on 15 dropped, Augusta National officially went nuts.
“The ground felt like it was moving,” writer James Achenbach wrote in Golfweek. “It was a surreal experience. I half expected the trees to bow down in homage to Nicklaus.”
The par three 16th hole had its usual Sunday accessible pin location, and Jack took advantage, sticking his shot close and making the birdie putt.
On 17 Nicklaus was faced with an 18 foot putt for birdie, a putt he simply needed to have if he had any chance. Jack was trying to post up a number in the clubhouse that had a chance of winning this thing. He knew that number was more than likely 65.
As he was lining the putt up on 17, Nicklaus heard a large groan from the crowd across the valley. Frank Chirkinian was working as director of the telecast that week for CBS, and he told Golfweek writer John Steinbreder, “Jack heard that sound on Sunday as he was getting ready to hit his putt on 17. It came from 15 where Seve Ballesteros hit his second shot into the water, and Jack knew exactly what had happened.
“I think it pumped him up, actually, and you could tell by his reaction when that putt went in how pumped up he was.”
It is that image of Jack, as the putt drops on 17, with his putter pointed upwards, that we remember the most from that magical day.
Nicklaus got his par on 18 and posted his 65. Then he had to sit back and wait. There were still golfers on the course that could catch him.
Tom Watson shot a 71 and finished -5.
Nick Price shot a 71 and finished -6.
Seve Ballesteros shot a 70 and finished -7.
Greg Norman shot a 70 and finished -8.
Tom Kite shot a 68 and tied Norman for second at -8.
Jack Nicklaus shot a 65 and finished at -9
He won his sixth green jacket and 18th major championship. It would be his last victory on tour.
The Golden Bear shot a remarkable 30 on the back nine of Augusta on Sunday, and played the final 10 holes -7.
Golf historian and writer Herbert Warren Wind described the win as “nothing less than the most important accomplishment in golf since Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam in 1930.”
Nicklaus later told Golfweek writer Alex Miceli, “I think the neat part of that week, in my opinion, was having my son Jack on the bag and having my mother there. It was the first time she had actually been to the Masters since I was a pro. She went down the first year when I was an amateur. And I don’t know why, but she said she wanted to go back one more time, and she did.”
Mother knows best.