Nicklaus' win at 1986 Masters still resonates

April 5, 2011 

By JAMES McMAHON

jmcmahon@golfersguide.com

There are those moments that get etched in your mind -- those "I still remember where I was when it happened" types of events. Like most, I'll always recall where I was when the space shuttle exploded and when three planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In the mainstream, the events we tend to hold on to are too often tragic and usually redefine our world. For those of us who find rescue and diversion in sports, however, many moments that take up rent in our crowded recollection spaces are unexpected, exciting and often inspiring.

Those moments tend to be personal and tied to sporting allegiance. For me, it's the Braves beating the Pirates in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series or John Riggins' late touchdown run to lift the Washington Redskins over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII.

Golf has certainly provided its share of magic moments authored by both the game's best players and the most unlikely ones. Yet one day, one expected and unforgettable accomplishment more than two decades later rates, at least in my crawl space, as the greatest day in major championship history.

The moment was 25 years ago this week and was authored by the man who is, and it seems now will remain, the greatest professional golfer of any generation. It happened at the most hallowed of golf venues this side of the Atlantic and at the event that has become the most significant and revered in the game today.

I'm talking, of course, about Jack Nicklaus' turn-the-clock-back triumph at the 1986 Masters, the most inspiring two hours of golf I have ever watched at the most breathtaking course I have ever walked.

I'm talking about the first golf tournament I remember watching on TV and maybe one of only two that I will never forget watching on TV.

I'm talking about the Golden Bear's improbable quest to win his sixth green jacket and further cement his place as the world's greatest professional golfer.

Like so many others of all ages, I remember that spring Sunday like it was yesterday. I was watching the tournament at my best friend Andy's house in Hampton, Va. Unlike today, where the lords of Augusta are far more accommodating with Sunday front-nine coverage, television really only showed live back-nine action of the Masters that time. Yet on that day, during that defining tournament, it was all one really needed to see.

Several years removed from his last major victory and thought by many to be well past his prime, Nicklaus gave little reason to think something special was afoot after an opening round 74, which he backed up with a Friday 71 to just squeeze past the cut. A third-round 69 was more Bear-like, but it still left him four shots short of the mighty Greg Norman, with a host of other accomplished golfers, including Tom Kite and Seve Ballesteros, between Jack and the lead.

Heading into the '86 Masters I had never seen Nicklaus win a tournament live on television, but I was well aware of his accomplishments and status in the game's history, as the Golden Bear was my brother's favorite player. I've always credited my love of the game to my oldest brother Marty. My adoration for watching it played, well, that can be traced directly to the back nine that was coming at Augusta National.

While Nicklaus' charge toward history unfolded on Augusta's historic back nine, it actually began in the later stages of his outward nine. Nicklaus birdied the difficult par-4 ninth hole and followed with consecutive birdies on Nos. 10 and 11, two of the toughest par-4s on the back nine. A bogey on the famous par-3 12th seemed to stymie the Bear's charge and end his chances of winning a Green Jacket at the age of 46. Jack rebounded with a birdie on 13 and then set the patrons into a frenzy when he snaked in an eagle putt on the par-5 15th.

While Nicklaus was charging, some of the game's biggest names were crumbling. Norman double-bogeyed the 10th to begin what would be a career of Augusta disappointment. Ballesteros, twice a winner at Augusta, would wash his ball in the water fronting the 15th and make bogey. Just as those golfers were fading, Nicklaus would pull off two of the most memorable shots in Masters lore, which 25 years later seem so fresh in golf fans' minds.

The first came on the treacherous par-3 16th. Nearly holing out from the tee box, Jack stuck his tee shot to inside five feet and made the putt. Those on hand would call the roar enough to wake the trees at the hallowed course. They hadn't heard -- or seen -- anything yet.

Standing on the 17th green at 8-under, Nicklaus believed he needed one more birdie to secure his 18th major. As if summoning The Golden Bear so many had thought far beyond his prime, Nicklaus calmly rolled in a long, downhill put, raising his putter in exaltation. The roar from Augusta was enough to give me goose bumps some 600-plus miles away.

Jack was right, 9-under was enough to win the Masters one more time. Everyone else that doubted the Bear had been wrong. The old man in yellow and plaid had one more major in him, one more unimaginable accomplishment that stands the test of time today.

Jack played the final 10 holes at Augusta that day in 7-under to become the oldest golfer to ever win the Masters. The Bear would finish in the top 10 at The Masters an amazing three more times, but perhaps more importantly, that Sunday in 1986 Nicklaus provided a whole new generation, my generation, at the very least a glimpse into the extraordinary golfer he was. For those who had watched and cheered Nicklaus during his days as the game's greatest, it was one of those classic turn-back-the-clock moments that was as cherished as it was unexpected.

Either way, it was a gift that keeps on giving today from the greatest player to have ever played the game on any day, but especially that special Sunday at Augusta.

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