1986 Masters: Nicklaus defies Father Time with a win for the ages

By Dave George
Published on
1986 Masters: Nicklaus defies Father Time with a win for the ages

NORTH PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The moment was as warm and fuzzy as a mauling can be, with Jack Nicklaus ripping up the back nine at Augusta National and untold millions of Masters viewers around the world instantly tucking the Golden Bear's astonishing victory at the age of 46 into their scrapbook of most treasured memories.

But what was it like inside the ropes in 1986, where Jack and Jack II, champion and caddy, father and son, fought just to keep their minds on the business at hand? Like nothing they'd ever felt before, that's the answer, and 30 years later that knee-buckling connection with the energy of fans and the engine of history lights them up still.

"There's no question my dad was feeding off the emotions of the crowd and the appreciation they had for him," said Jack II, now eight years older than Nicklaus was that day. "He was very emotional and truly he teared up as he approached every tee, as he approached every green.

"I watched him but I tried not to make eye contact. I would not let him see my emotions because I would not let him get out of whatever zone he was in. No way, no how. He was wiping tears off his cheeks as I was. It's amazing that he keep recollecting himself and getting the job done, but he kept making birdies, kept making great shots. You think about the overwhelming pressure to perform at that time, knowing it may be your last chance to win a major, but he got it done."

That 18th major, Nicklaus' last, came out of nowhere.

It arrived on the wings of a back-nine 30. It shook the hand-operated scoreboards the way only a Sunday 65 can. And then, once those two smiling Jack's walked off the final green, arms around each other's shoulders, it was time for Nicklaus to watch the rest of the tournament on television, like the rest of us, because there still was the chance of a comeback to trump his own.

"I went to Jones Cabin when I finished," Nicklaus said last week at his corporate offices in North Palm Beach. "It was probably about half an hour waiting for the finish. I was sitting on a couch and watching it and Greg Norman started making birdies and I said, 'Well, I'm not doing any good here,' so I stood up and walked around behind the couch."

Paced behind the couch is what he means. Raise your hand if you were doing the same in your living room as Tom Kite barely missed a birdie putt that would have tied Nicklaus on No. 18. Then came Norman, a superstar in his prime, striding down the final fairway with four straight birdies on his card and no worse than a playoff if he could finish with a par.

"It was probably about half an hour waiting on the finish," Nicklaus said. "I would have had time to go out and hit about five balls if I needed it (to prepare for a sudden-death playoff)."

Five balls. One for every one of his previous Masters victories. Sure, Jack had a lifetime of successful showdowns to bolster him right then, but his wife Barbara and his mother Helen and Jack II struggled with knowing what to say or whether to speak at all.

"That actually was the first time I saw him nervous all day," Jack II said. "I'm thinking, 'How in the world is Dad going to recollect his thoughts and energy?' I knew he was exhausted at that point. I knew he would have to go back out there if a playoff was forced."

Then Norman sailed his approach shot into the gallery right of the 18th green and missed a chance to save par from 15 feet. Just like that the Nicklaus clan was on its feet, group-hugging in the privacy of the cabin and crying a little more. When Jack walked out, a roar went up from fans who knew where to wait, and they were rewarded by the image of the Golden Bear, relieved, remastered, with two fists clenched above his head.

"I felt bad for Tom," Jack said. "I felt bad for Greg. But obviously I wanted to win the tournament."

All of this started with an opening-round 74, and before that with missed cuts at Pebble Beach and the Honda Classic and the Tournament Players Championship. Accordingly, Tom McCollister of the Atlanta Journal-Conustitution wrote in a pre-Masters report that Nicklaus "just doesn't have the game anymore." Though harsh, it wasn't that crazy of a thing to say about a player who hadn't won a PGA Tour event in a couple of years and hadn't won a major since the 1980 PGA Championship.

John Montgomery, a Nicklaus friend and business partner who reveled in playing pranks on Jack, made certain to tape that uncomplimentary clipping on the refrigerator door at the house the family was renting for the week.

"I don't think (Jack) went in with a great positive attitude," said Barbara, "but on the other hand he never entered tournament that he didn't expect to win. I think it was kind of like juggling a ball. On one side, he's thinking, 'OK, I can do this,' and on the other side he had a few questions."

At least Augusta was a comfortable setting. Nicklaus first played in the Masters in 1959 as a 19-year-old amateur. Four years later he won the tournament. Four times, in addition to the record six victories, he has been runnerup. So there was no particular pressure, and no real expectation, to do more in 1986.

"It was kind of like a family week at the house," Barbara said. "We played church hymns and sang in loud, obnoxious voices. Jack, too. I played the piano. Jack's mom played. Luckily, they had a Methodist hymnbook that was there in the house."

It's not difficult to imagine Barbara was still humming along to herself on the way to the golf course on what felt like a low-stress Sunday.

Nicklaus started out four shots behind the leader, Norman, after middle rounds of 71 and 69. What's more, the eight players ahead of Jack included heavyweights like Seve Ballesteros, defending Masters champion Bernhard Langer, Nick Price and Tom Watson. When Nicklaus parred his first eight holes of the day, it really seemed like nothing was happening.

Then a birdie putt dropped for Nicklaus on No. 9, stirring up a little noise, and another went in from 25 feet on No. 10, and then one more on No. 11. That's when the word began to spread around the course, and the thunder began to echo through the pines. No doubt about it, the Bear was on the prowl again, and with the exception of a bogey from missing the green on No. 12, he never slowed down.

The images gallop past now, as they did then. A two-putt birdie on No. 13. An eagle from 12 feet on No. 15. A 5-iron that did everything but roll into the cup on No. 16.

"Be right, be right," Jack II implored as that tee shot tracked toward a spot 3 feet from the pin. "It is," his father replied.

"To this day," Barbara said, "Jack says it's the cockiest remark he's ever made on the golf course, but of course it was just said to Jackie so people didn't know that until later."

On the next tee Nicklaus heard a groan so gruesome that he knew Ballesteros had just hit one in the water two holes behind him. One more birdie and Jack would be in business, and so he got it, on No. 17, drilling a 12-foot putt that he walked into the cup, that bulky black Response putter held high in the air and a devlish smile on his face.

"Maybe...Yes, sir!" CBS announcer Verne Lundquist shouted as the ball disappeared in the cup.

Twice more after that it was maybe for Jack at the Masters but not quite. He finished sixth in 1990 and tied for sixth in 1998, at the age of 58. Want to know something else? Jack shot a 72 a couple of weeks ago in a members-only tournament at Augusta National. That's four shots lower than his age but he jokingly chides himself for "choking like a dog" with bogeys on two of the last four holes.

"In 1986, I was still trying to play," Jack said, "but I wasn't working like I did when I was younger. So I just caught lightning in a bottle at the right time. Once I got myself in position, I remembered how to play."

Remembered how to short-cut his way around Augusta National, too, with tears in his eyes and with cheers leading the way.

This article was written by Dave George from The Palm Beach Post and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.