A transcendent moment in golf history

A transcendent moment in golf history

The piece could have been modeled from any of several photographs capturing what happened at the 17th hole late on the Sunday afternoon of April 13, 1986, a split second before Nicklaus – then 46 – first took the lead in what became his sixth and last Masters victory, his record 18th major championship and his 73rd tour win.

It was then that Nicklaus knew his odds of winning had moved from possible to highly probable. The photographs show the change on his face as his last birdie putt of a remarkable final round approached the hole. With soft light from the setting sun streaming onto his face as it broke into a wide grin, Nicklaus bent his knees into a powerful, athletic crouch and raised the putter in his left hand aloft, like a scepter or Excalibur, as he stalked the putt.

This is the recollection Tiger Woods, who was 10 at the time, has said is his most vivid, “the way Jack was walking the putt into the hole.” It is what Nick Price remembers best from '86, what he saw from the 15th fairway as he and the man who had been the leader, Greg Norman, were walking toward their tee shots.

“We saw the putter go up and we knew it was going in,” Price said. “And it was the loudest roar I have ever heard on a golf course right then and there. Incredible atmosphere and just, I don’t know how to say it, even when I won my majors, it didn’t feel anything like that, that atmosphere.”

Very few of the spine-tingling recollections have faded from that Sunday, the most dramatic final round in the history of Augusta National. There, in front of an ecstatic gallery and what is perennially the largest television audience of the year for a golf tournament, Nicklaus – already written off as washed-up – went ahead and won the Masters.

The bare facts speak loudly. Starting in a tie for ninth place, four strokes behind, having gone two years without a victory and five since his last major championship, Nicklaus shot a seven-under-par 65 to win. The round included a 30 on the back nine – with a bogey at the 12th. In the 25 years since, no one has closed with an incoming 30 to win.

Golf World magazine called it the “greatest final round in major championship history.” Few among those who saw it live or on the ‘CBS’ broadcast would argue.

In one of his many reminiscences of '86 this year, Nicklaus recently recalled the stirring, high-wire act that was played out across the back nine, stopping just short of calling it the greatest victory of his career. “You can’t really rank them,” he said, ‘`but I think it’s obvious that that one stands out, simply because most of the other ones were during the bulk or the basic part of my career, and I expected to win.

“I guess nobody really expected me to be in contention at that point in my career, particularly even me. I had not really prepared all that great for it that spring. But once I got myself in contention, muscle memory and knowing how to play golf came back.”

In addition to the sublime shots that were played – Nicklaus’ soaring 4-iron into the 15th green to 12 feet for eagle, a 5-iron tight to the flagstick at No. 16 – there also were emotional notes that resonated. Curtis Strange, hardly known for his soft side, found himself moved by the sight of Nicklaus, with the second of his four sons, Jackie, on the bag, walking through a dream round.

“I guess the one last impression that I have in my mind is Jackie and Jack walking off the last green together arm in arm,” said Strange, who finished in a tie for 21st that year. “I think as a father, we all can relate to that.”

Still, the obstacles between Nicklaus and his sixth green jacket were many. Adding to them had been an atmosphere fraught with dramatic tension, sparked by the brash prediction made by Seve Ballesteros of Spain after his third-round 72 put him in a tie for second going into Sunday. “This tournament is mine,” Ballesteros, who won in 1980 and '83, told ‘The Augusta Chronicle’.

Then there was the mounting of another effort by Tom Kite to gain his first Masters win after blowing the tournament two years earlier, and the sheer macho swagger that accompanied Norman’s first leading-man appearance, swirling around the top of the boards as the freshly minted Great White Shark.

Norman led the tournament at six-under-par 210 after 54 holes, the first of his four 54-hole leads in that year of the Saturday Slam.  One by one, every challenger came unraveled. Ballesteros’ hopes all but ended when, after hearing a roar from the 16th green to celebrate Nicklaus’ birdie there, he hit his 4-iron into the pond fronting the 15th green.

Kite’s chance to end Nicklaus’ dream fizzled when his 10-footer for birdie at the 18th took a dive to the left at the hole. Norman’s opportunity to catch Nicklaus also dissolved at the final hole, where he blew his 4-iron shot into the gallery, well to the right, and failed to get up and down for par after a mediocre pitch.

At 46 years, two months and 23 days, Nicklaus became the third-oldest player to win a major, one-and-a-half months younger than Old Tom Morris was when he won the British Open 119 years earlier. In another timeless display in 1998, Nicklaus shook up the youngsters at the Masters again when, at 58, he tied for sixth, shooting a final-round 68.

Though still sprightly at 71, he will not mount any more threats to roll back the hands of time. What he did 25 years ago will have to stand. In his recent book, “The 1986 Masters: How Jack Nicklaus Roared Back to Win,” John Boyette, the sports editor of The Augusta Chronicle, quoted Nicklaus saying as much.

“I think what it did was put an exclamation point on my career,” Nicklaus told Boyette. “I think I obviously had a pretty good career prior to that, and then to turn around at 46 and be able to finish a golf tournament, people said, ‘Hey, he can still play golf.”’

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