Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 7, 2011

A Masters For The Ages

As play gets underway at the 75th renewal of the Masters, one cannot help but think back a quarter century, to that remarkable Sunday afternoon in 1986. While so much has happened at Augusta National in the ensuing 25 years; Nick’s repeated steely brilliance, Freddie’s shot on #12 that somehow clung to the bank just above Rae’s Creek, Ben’s emotional week without a single three-putt right after the death of his putting instructor, Greg’s epic collapse, Tiger turning an opening-nine 40 into a 12-shot rout and his many, many heroics since, Angel saving par from deep in the woods at #18, Phil making the place his own of late culminating with the 6-iron from the pine straw on #13 last year, none of it quite compares to the afternoon of April 13, 1986, when the Golden Bear roared one last time.

At age 46, Jack Nicklaus was hardly one of the favorites when he arrived that week. He had not won a tournament in almost two years, and hadn’t triumphed in a major since 1980, when he won the U.S. Open by two strokes and the PGA Championship by seven. In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article handicapping that year’s field, sportswriter Tom McCollister had dismissed Nicklaus, writing that he was “gone, done. He doesn’t have the game anymore. It’s rusted from lack of use.”

When Nicklaus opened with rounds of 74 and 71 to head into the weekend at one over par, McCollister’s unkind words were looking prophetic. A third round 69 got him into red numbers, but at two under Nicklaus began the fourth round in ninth place, four strokes back of leader Greg Norman.

For the first half of the final round he did little to close the gap. Then, at #9, Nicklaus rolled in a long birdie putt to make the turn at one under for the day and three under for the tournament, and history began to be written.

His 4-iron approach down the steep hill to the 10th green settled 25 feet from the hole. The birdie putt fell into the heart of the cup. A few minutes later his second shot on the par 4 11th left him 20 feet for a third consecutive birdie. When Nicklaus’s putt found the bottom of the hole, the patrons in Amen Corner, many of whom had been on the premises for his five previous Masters’ victories, roared their approval.

Then, for a moment, it looked like his momentum might be stopped. A 7-iron at the par-3 12th was pulled left of the green, and he was unable to get up and down for par. After the bogey, Nicklaus had just six holes left to play. At the time it seemed like there simply wasn’t enough golf left for him to catch Norman or Nick Price or Tom Kite or Seve Ballesteros. The flamboyant Spaniard had brashly proclaimed “This tournament is mine,” after he was left tied for second at the end of the third round. Sure enough, by this time he had moved into the lead.

But on the reachable par-5 13th Nicklaus put his drive in perfect position around the corner of the dogleg. His 3-iron second shot was safely across Rae’s Creek and onto the green. The 30-foot putt for eagle just missed, but a tap-in birdie erased the damage done at #12. After getting up and down for par from the back fringe on #14, Nicklaus scorched his drive on the 15th.

Standing in the fairway of the par-5, 202 yards from the hole, Nicklaus was still four shots behind Ballesteros. This was no time to lay up. His oldest son Jackie, who was caddying for him for the first time that day, handed him a 4-iron. With a perfect swing Nicklaus launched the ball into the heavens, over the wide swatch of Rae’s Creek guarding the front of the green and onto the putting surface, 12 feet from the hole. When the eagle putt fell in, slicing the lead in half, Jackie leapt into the air as if his father had already won.

By now the cheers were echoing through the stately pines, and fans were ignoring the club’s rule against running on the grounds as they raced to find good viewing spots on the final holes. At the par-3 16th, Nicklaus’s 5-iron bounced just past the hole and spun back, nearly falling in for an ace. It stopped just a yard below the cup. Another mighty roar shook the air when the birdie putt fell. Just as it did, Ballesteros was getting ready to strike his approach to the 15th. Surely it was still echoing in his ears when he put a spectacularly bad swing on the ball, and watched it splash into the creek in front of the green. The resulting bogey meant that in the space of a few minutes the four-stroke cushion had been erased. Nicklaus was now tied for the lead, and the thousands in attendance and millions watching on television were in a frenzy.

At the par-4 17th he pulled his drive onto a patch of hardpan, 125 yards from the green. Despite the less than ideal lie Nicklaus put his next shot safely on, some 11 feet from the hole. After looking the putt over from all sides, Nicklaus stood over the ball and made one more smooth stroke. As the golf ball neared the hole, the greatest golfer of his time suddenly took a step forward, almost as if he was walking the birdie putt into the hole. He raised the putter in his left hand over his head and a wide smile broke onto his face. On CBS announcer Verne Lundquist made the memorable call, “Maybe……Yes sir!”

On the adjoining 15th fairway, Norman and Price were walking to their tee shots. Price has often described his memory of that moment, as he looked over to the 17th green. “We saw the putter go up and we knew it was going in,” he has said. “And it was the loudest roar I have ever heard on a golf course.”

There was still golf to be played that Sunday afternoon. Nicklaus still had to par the 18th, which he did, lagging a 40-foot birdie putt up close to the hole. The golfers behind him on the course and now on the scoreboard as well still had to try to catch him. Try they did, all coming up short. Kite and Norman came closest. The former missed a 10-foot birdie putt at the 18th that would have tied Nicklaus. The latter was tied standing in the 18th fairway, but fanned a 4-iron wide right of the green, up into the gallery, and was unable to save par.

But in that moment at the 17th, as the putter rose into the air like a mighty sword and the ball made its final few revolutions toward the center of the cup, the outcome seemed certain. At age 46 Jack had turned back the clock, firing a final round 65 that included an astonishing 30 on the back nine (with a bogey!). He had overtaken the best golfers from all around the world who had started the day in front of him, to win his 6th Masters and 18th major championship. He had proven the skeptics dead wrong, and made the 50th playing of this most-watched golf tournament one for the ages. Maybe the best one ever. Maybe……Yes sir!

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