• Rewind to 1986

The Golden Bear comes out of hibernation

Alex Dimond
April 7, 2011
One of golf's iconic images - Jack Nicklaus raises his putter in celebration even before his vital putt on the 17th drops into the cup © Getty Images

The only major championship in golf that never changes venue, The Masters at Augusta National has a certain mystique. Much of that comes from the legendary performances the course has played host to in the past, none more so than from a 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus in 1986, rolling back the years to win another green jacket.

This year is the 25th anniversary of that incredible Sunday performance. As former major winner Ken Venturi (who nearly won the tournament as an amateur 30 years earlier) told his fresh-faced co-commentator at the time: "You may be lucky enough to broadcast 50 Masters, but you'll never live to see a greater one than the one you saw today."

'Yes Sir: Jack Nicklaus and the '86 Masters' will be shown on ESPN at 9am on Thursday April 7, and repeated throughout the rest of the week on the channel and ESPN America. For subscription details, click here.

Eighteen. As far as Tiger Woods' golf career is concerned, 18 is the number by which he will eventually be judged.

Tiger, as with so many aspects of his personal life, can only blame himself for that. Ever since he was able to swing a club (around the same time he was able to stand), he has compared himself against the achievements of the greatest player to precede him - Jack Nicklaus. And, on the slightly-crumpled newspaper clipping Woods pasted to his bedroom wall, there was one achievement above all that Woods aimed to overhaul - Nicklaus' 18 major victories.

Ever since Woods won his first at The Masters in 1997, debate has raged about whether he will reach that lofty number - with the consensus swaying back and forth depending on his form from year to year. But, had it not been for an equally memorable victory around Augusta National 11 years prior to Woods' breakthrough display, his target would at least have been one increment easier.

Eighteen still looks a long way away. Seventeen, somehow, would seem more attainable. But, as Jack Nicklaus proved in 1986, either way it is far too dangerous to ever write off anybody who has ever exhibited greatness in their field.

Woods might be in a slump, after all, but it is one Nicklaus himself has compared to his lean spell prior to 1980 - shortly before he would grab two majors in quick succession. By 1986 it was a different story for the man everybody agreed was the greatest golfer who ever lived - six years removed from his last success of real note, some journalists had even come to write him off.

Nicklaus, like Woods now, had already been through his slump. Now it was worse than that; it was the end.

"Nicklaus is gone, done," respected journalist Tom McCollister wrote in his preview on the tournament's eve. "He just doesn't have the game anymore. It's rusted from lack of use. He's 46, and nobody that old wins the Masters."

Nicklaus had only won twice in all competitions in those six years, after all. He'd missed three of seven cuts in the early part of the 1986 season. Gary Player, 42 in 1978, was the oldest player to have ever won the Masters. Nicklaus, by every measure you'd care to mention, was done, past it.

Before he was revered as 'the Golden Bear'. Now we has dismissed as 'the Olden Bear'.

The man himself ignored the received wisdom, however - after a top ten finish in Georgia the year before, he knew that when it came to the majors - this one in particular - the fire still burned inside.

"I still enjoy competitive golf. I just haven't been able to generate any enthusiasm for the weekly tour tournaments," Nicklaus admitted in the build-up to another Augusta pilgrimage. "The majors, well, that could be different."

For three rounds, it didn't exactly look like that would prove the case. Nicklaus was four shots off the lead, held by Greg Norman, as the sun rose over the course on Sunday morning, but then a timely phone call kicked the competitive spirit that had been lying dormant - some said gone forever - back into life.

"Nicklaus is gone, done. He just doesn't have the game anymore. It's rusted from lack of use. He's 46, and nobody that old wins the Masters."
Respected journalist Tom McCollister, in his 1986 Masters preview

"Whaddaya think, Pops?" Nicklaus' son, Steve, said early on Sunday morning.

"I think 66 would be good for a tie, and 65 would win," Jack responded.

"That's the number I had in mind, too," Steve agreed. "Go shoot it."

Indeed, the stars already seemed to have aligned in the legend's favour. The eldest of his four sons, Jack Jr., was on the bag that week, while his mother, Helen, was making her first return to the event since Jack competed as an amateur in 1959.

"I always wanted to come back and see the course again," she explained to reporters at the time, as Jack's sister followed in tow for her first visit to the fabled arena. "I'm a flower lover. I think I wanted to see all of that more than the golf."

Her son was in little mood for smelling the azaleas, however, as he once again found himself in the hunt on championship Sunday. Having made one shot against par by the turn, on the tricky ninth, Nicklaus then rolled in a 30-footer on the wickedly sloped 10th to make it to four-under and give himself the belief he could challenge strongly for a sixth green jacket.

After negotiating the notorious Amen Corner without penalty - well, he birdied the devilish 11th and then dropped a shot after his putt hit a spike mark on the scenic 12th - before picking up the required shot on the par-five 13th (having been brutally unlucky not to see his second shot spin towards the hole, instead sticking to the slope around 40 feet away), Nicklaus was in touch with leader Seve Ballesteros but not quite threatening.

Maybe he really was past it. The old Nicklaus - the one who came from behind on Sunday in seven of his previous major victories - would have made his move by now.

Suddenly, incredibly, Nicklaus would prove that nothing had changed.

On 15 - where Gene Sarazen found an albatross ('the shot heard around the world') in 1935 on the way to his own dramatic victory - Nicklaus left himself a 12-foot putt for eagle after a booming drive and crisply struck, 202-yard four-iron over the lake. As the ensuing putt dropped, the atmosphere around the course picked up.

"I've never heard a roar like that. The crowd went bananas," Nicklaus' playing partner that day, Sandy Lyle (who would go on to win the event two years later), recalled. "It raised the hairs on the back of my neck."

Everyone sensed that suddenly everything had changed.

Greg Norman had the chance to catch Nicklaus as the Golden Bear waited in the Butler Cabin © Getty Images

"He had made the eagle putt on 15, and everybody went crazy. Then they posted the score, and everybody goes crazy all over again," Mark McCumber, in the group in front, said. "We had to time our shots the whole rest of the way to where he wasn't hitting, and [when] they weren't putting up the new numbers on the scoreboards. We did that all the way in."

By then the patrons - remember, Augusta does not have spectators - were firmly on side. 'There's life in the old bear yet,' was how the commentary team of Tom Weiskopf and Jim Nantz described it.

Riding the crest of a wave, Nicklaus took dead-aim on the par-three 16th and trusted his swing. Picking up his tee, as by then he could not see distances so well, Jackie said "Be right."

Nicklaus' response was immediate: "It is."

The ball pitched five feet right of the traditional Sunday pin position - perched precariously near the water - before spinning left across the front of the hole and leaving another tap-in birdie. By now, the patrons could not be subdued.

Back on the par-five Nicklaus had just conquered, Ballesteros - who already had two eagles for the day - pulled his approach right to find the water and ultimately drop out of contention like a stone.

"The bear is out of hibernation", the increasingly excited Weiskopf and Nantz were now warning. Eighteen feet away from the hole on the 17th and putting for the lead, experience fused with excellence to make another correct read at a crucial point.

"I think it's gonna slide right," offered Jack Jr.

"You're right ... but then it's gonna turn back towards Rae's Creek, and straighten out at the end of the putt," Jack, who had relied on his son's eyes but his own recollections for much of the day, recalled from memory.

"Are you sure?"

"It's been that way for years."

Raising his oversized putter - the subject of unkind jokes earlier in the week, but a wand that would soon go on to sell 350,000 copies to the general public - even before the ball had reached the hole as prescribed, Nicklaus' celebration - and the "Maybe ... yes, sir!" commentary of announcer Verne Lundquist - would go on to become one of the iconic passages of golfing lore.

It also put him in the lead of a major once again.

Agonisingly unlucky with his approach into the last hole, as a gust of wind buffetted his shot, a 40-foot putt left inches short of the cup nevertheless brought Nicklaus home in the round of 65 he had set himself in the morning. His back nine of 30 was a new tournament record (since broken, although Woods would equal it during his first round of that other watershed triumph in 1997) - but Tom Kite and Norman were still on the course and in contention.

Nicklaus would have to wait and watch to see whether his effort would indeed be good enough.

"I like to win tournaments with my golf clubs," he offered, exhausted, as he sat in the famous Butler Cabin watching the duo wrestle with the final few holes. "But sometimes all you can do is watch."

1986 Masters - Final leaderboard

An overwhelmed Jack Nicklaus accepts his Green Jacket from Bernhard Langer © Getty Images
  • -9     Jack Nicklaus        (74 71 69 65)     279
  • -8     Tom Kite                (70 74 68 68)     280
  • -8     Greg Norman         (70 72 68 70)    280
  • -7     Seve Ballesteros    (71 68 72 70)    281
  • -6     Nick Price              (79 69 63 71)    282

Minutes later, Kite saw his birdie putt to tie on the 18th slide agonisingly left of the cup. When Norman's pursuit of outright victory - following four birdies on the spin - only led him to an ugly bogey in front of the Cabin, Nicklaus was crowned an emotional winner.

But this, despite his comments, wasn't a victory the Golden Bear was handed. It was earned, as he preferred it, with his clubs - but also encouraged by his supportive family and fuelled by the demeaning scepticism of legions of writers who once fell at his feet.

Meeting those very people after donning the green jacket, Nicklaus spotted McCollister - who had so plainly written him off - and made a pointed request: "Write the same article next year and put 47 in it, will ya?"

His doubters had been silenced, his supporters once again whipped into a frenzy.

In one blistering round of golf, Nicklaus had restored his legend and raised the bar another increment further for anyone, like the then 10-year-old Woods, with ambitions of challenging his legacy.

"Never has a crowd screamed louder. Never a victory so popular. Never one that felt so right," Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times wrote afterwards. "Will he ever do anything so great again?

"No, but he'll try."

What happened next?
Nicklaus didn't win another major championship, although he did pick up eight on the Champions Tour once he hit 50. Greg Norman would face heartbreak at Augusta again in 1996 - throwing away a six-shot lead to Sir Nick Faldo - the year before Tiger Woods would carve up Augusta and usher in a new era to the game.

"It was the most gratifying win of my career," Nicklaus would note of '86. "In my later years I always believed in two things: that on some days I could be as good as I ever was, and that if I got in contention in a major I would remember how to win.

"I might not win, but I would remember how."

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