Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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Before Tiger, there was the great Nicklaus


Jack Nicklaus raises his putter in triumph as his birdie putt on the 17th hole at Augusta falls in the cup during the 1986 Masters. The putt capped a dramatic rally that earned the 46-year-old Nicklaus his 18th major championship.


AUGUSTA, Ga. — It is somewhat remarkable to consider that there are adults among us, people in their mid-20s, even late 20s, who never saw Muhammad Ali throw a punch. Never saw Ali-Frazier; never heard of the Rumble in the Jungle.

They never saw even one of Hammerin' Hank's 755 home runs. Forget Mickey Mantle.

They never witnessed the poetic Arthur Ashe stroke a tennis ball, never felt the raw power of Connors-Borg, never saw Chrissy vs. Martina in a Grand Slam final.

To them, Terry Bradshaw is a bald guy reading scores at halftime.

For many, golf begins and ends with Tiger Woods. But there was, and is so much more. There was Francis Ouimet's Open, there were Hagan and Hogan, Byron Nelson winning just about everything in 1945, Arnie driving the first green at Cherry Hills in '60 to begin a rally for the ages.

And there was the afternoon of April 13, 1986, just maybe the most spectacular five hours in the history of the sport. Yes, there are those who never saw Jack Nicklaus, golf's greatest champion, win a major. The last was 25 years ago. Trust me, it was unforgettable.

At age 46, two years removed from any tournament win, six years after any other major title, considered capable and competitive, but probably no longer of championship timbre, Nicklaus was even par after eight holes on Sunday with a dozen players between him and the top of the scoreboard. The leader, Seve Ballesteros, was six shots up on the once-Golden, now-Olden Bear with 10 holes to play.

Then came a birdie at No. 9 and a stunning 30 on the back nine, and only one man wore the green jacket, Nicklaus' sixth and his 18th and final major championship.

Nicklaus had won his second Masters in 1965 with a staggering 17-under-par total forged on rounds of 67-71-64-69. It prompted Augusta National founder Bob Jones, the once-great amateur, to declare, "Nicklaus played a game with which I am not familiar." Imagine what Jones, by then deceased, might have said if he'd witnessed Jack's final-round 65 exactly 23 years later.

Nicklaus' birdie putt at No. 17 in '86, a 12-footer from above the hole, with a left-to-right break towards Rae's Creek, may well be the most famous putt if not in golf, then certainly in Masters lore. Venerable announcer Verne Lundquist was in the tower above the 17th green, as he will be this week for CBS-TV, and his call is nearly as famous.

"Maybe … yes SIR!" Lundquist said as Nicklaus, in a yellow shirt and checkered trousers, took a hunched-over, stalking step toward the cup, raising his putter in triumph.

"To see what he did at the age he accomplished it, it's still the most memorable sporting event I've ever been a part of," Lundquist said. "When he made the turn, I'm sitting up on 17 and I'd take the headset off and you could hear things going on around the golf course. I've never heard a buzz like that."

The buzz everyone heard a hole earlier was perhaps unrivaled in Augusta National's history of great golfing drama. Nicklaus had just eagled No. 15 when he walked to the 175-yard 16th hole, the undulating par-3 with the Sunday pin position tucked behind a pond.

Nicklaus took a straight line to the flag, soft and high, with a 5-iron. With the ball barely in flight, his caddie, son Jackie, said, "Be right!" Nicklaus, in what he admits was probably his cockiest moment on a course, merely bent over to pick up his tee and said, "It is."

And it was. The ball checked up three feet from the hole, and the roar coming out of that valley as Nicklaus walked to the green was the stuff that lifts the hair off your arms. It grew only louder moments later when he stuffed the sliding little putt dead center.

Then, there was another sound. Perhaps shaken by the roars for Nicklaus, Ballesteros knocked his second shot at No. 15 into the small water hazard fronting the green.

"It was a horrible sound, sort of a half cheer with a deep-sounding groan underneath it," Nicklaus said later. "It was not a nice sound."

Nicklaus, Ballesteros, and Tom Kite were suddenly tied. Greg Norman, who would be the last man with a chance to catch Jack before spraying his approach to the 18th green far into the gallery, was a shot behind. At the end, after the birdie putt at 17, long after Nicklaus had embraced his son and the two had walked arms-over-shoulders off the green at No. 18, only a legend would be left standing.

The 25th anniversary of that victory, said Nicklaus, is "just another year away from a great year for me, but still very nice."

Here are more of his thoughts from a recent teleconference with media members:

  • "It was a neat win and one that I guess nobody really expected me to be in contention at that point of my career, particularly even me. I had not prepared all that great for it that spring. But once I got into contention, muscle memory and knowing how to play golf came back."

  • "Like every Masters, I always started thinking about it in January and preparing for it all through the tournaments I played. Well, in '86, I started thinking about it in January and started preparing about two weeks before. I don't even know why I was playing golf then. I was doing my golf course design work, but I really liked to play golf."

  • "Age 46 doesn't resonate as much today simply because of equipment. But in those days I was playing a wood driver, playing a wound golf ball. ... Things didn't go as far. You didn't reduce a golf course to nothing like you can today."

  • "I hit a 7-iron into 12 and played 3-iron into 13. I think I played 7-iron into 14. I hit a 5-iron on 16, I hit pitching wedge, 110 yards, at 17, and I hit 5-iron at 18. Outside of that, I can't remember (laughs). You wouldn't have known the difference … I could have said anything. But, no, those are the clubs I played."

  • "The fans [in 1986] were fantastic, no question about that. And what has happened since, I still don't care where I go, I always run into somebody and they say, you know, ‘I was in an airport in '86 and I [changed] my flight and sat there and watched it because I couldn't leave.' It's amazing the number of people who told me those kinds of stories."
  • "I still get the same excitement and thrill [when] I think about Augusta. Where I get my thrill at Augusta is usually driving down Magnolia Lane. When I first drove down it in 1959, I said, ‘Man, that's great.' I'll drive in there [this] week, and I'll still look at it and say, ‘Man, this is pretty neat.'"
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