The Masters is the greatest of golf's four major championships; it's beauty and potential for drama trumping the difficulty of the U.S. Open, the history of the British Open and intensity of the PGA Championship. Held each spring in Georgia amidst Augusta National's parade of Azeleas, Dogwoods and Magnolias, the Masters presents professional golf's most beautiful pressure cooker. The golf course was built with purpose; to present fans with tragic theatre in the pines. Echoes of victories past are rumored to swirl amongst Augusta National's treetops.
Memories of dramatic Masters moments loom large. From Gene Sarazen's, 'shot heard round the world' in 1935 to Larry Mize stealing victory from the jaws of the Great White Shark in 1987 to Fred Couples' 'answered prayer' in 1992 and Tiger Woods' legendary romp around Augusta in 1997, the Masters has always provided compelling theater. No Master's moment, however, tops the 1986 Masters, during which arguably the greatest golfer of all-time, Jack Nicklaus, stormed back from a five-shot deficit in the final round to shoot a five-under par 30 on the famed back nine and win by a single stroke.
What made the Golden Bear's victory on that fateful Sunday in '86 so amazing wasn't the fact that he made such a dramatic comeback in a pressure-filled environment, but that he did so at the age of 46, when most of the golfing world had already put him to pasture. At the time, he was considered past his prime. He hadn't won a PGA tour event in two years and it had been six years since his last major championship.
Prior to the tournament Nicklaus' competitors sounded off on the state of the Golden Bear's game at the time:
Tom Kite was quoted in author Tom Clavin's book entitled, One for the Ages (Chicago Review Press) as saying, "I don't think he can win any tournament."
And the diminutive Corey Pavin had said, "I think the players now respect him more for what he has done and what he has meant to golf than they respect him for his game. If I were going head to head with him, I wouldn't be afraid of him or fear anything supernatural."
Nicklaus himself didn't have high expectations for a successful tournament, and admitted his preparation for the '86 Masters was sub-par. In the audio clip below, Nicklaus says his motivation was lacking:
His '86 Masters started as expected, with rounds of 74 on Thursday and 71 on Friday, good enough to make the cut, but well behind the Friday leader Seve Ballesteros. Then on Saturday Nicklaus summoned a 69, climbing to within four shots of the leaders. Doubt persisted from the television announcers and golfing public though, as the world's current crop of top players dominated the leaderboard ahead of Nicklaus.
Then Sunday came and the golfing world was changed forever. And fittingly, it all changed on Augusta's infamous 'Amen Corner', where most Masters dreams get put to bed.
The Golden Bear finally awoke from his long hibernation on the PGA Tour with consecutive birdies on the difficult ninth, 10th and 11th holes. All of a sudden, the galleries started to murmur. Then he dropped another birdie on the 13th hole and the murmurs suddenly turned into disbelief and wild cheering. When Nicklaus holed another putt for eagle on the 15th, Augusta National apparently went nuts.
"The ground felt like it was moving," James Achenbach wrote in a 2006 Golfweek story. "It was a surreal experience. I half expected the trees to bow down in homage to Nicklaus."
And when Nicklaus made yet another birdie on the 16th hole, CBS announcer Jim Nantz, who was working his very first Masters, said, "The Bear has come out of hibernation!"
But he wasn't done yet. Needing yet another birdie to reach 9-under par, the score Nicklaus thought it would take to win, he was faced with an 18-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole. As he was studying his line, Nicklaus apparently heard a large grown from the crowd surrounding the 15th hole and knew the leaders were likely in trouble. The putt facing him was, in his mind, for all the marbles. And he holed it, creating one of golf's most iconic images; that of Nicklaus celebrating with his putter raised high, wearing his classic golden golf shirt and dark, plaid pants. It is an image I tried to recreate on the golf course as a youngster time and time again.
Today's young golfers try to emulate Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, but in my day we all wanted to be the Golden Bear. Although I had missed most of his illustrious career during the 60s and 70s, his true talent and ability was on full display during the '86 Masters. It was a performance I am proud to have witnessed live and one that I will cherish for my lifetime. There are so many moments during that back nine on Sunday that stick in my head. How did it feel to be Jack on that fateful day? What was it like shocking the world in such glorious fashion? Is there one moment that stands out in his mind? According the following sound bite, Nicklaus says he enjoyed a nice, 'two-hour moment.'
The Masters begins on Thursday. Will we witness yet another historic golfing moment this weekend? Stay tuned.
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