Masters Memories: Nicklaus wins in ’86
” I’m walking back to the compound and Ken Venturi said, ‘How old are you, kid?’ I said I’m 26. He said ‘Let me tell you something, you may one day be lucky enough to say that you’ve seen 40 or 50 Masters, you may, but I can tell you one thing, you’ll never live to see a day like what you saw right here.’ And you know what? He was right, we never will. ”
-Jim Nantz discussing the 1986 Masters
It’s difficult to imagine, but Jack Nicklaus was an afterthought in 1986. Since winning the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 1980, the Golden Bear had only won two PGA Tour events, the 1982 Colonial and 1984 Memorial. In the inaugural Official World Golf Rankings, published the week before the 1986 Masters, Nicklaus was ranked as the 33rd best player in the world. 33rd! Obviously being the 33rd best player in the world meant that he was still a capable golfer, but the expectations, especially when it came to major championships, were pretty much gone.
Nicklaus last won the Masters in 1975, but he was competitive in the ten events in between, picking up six top-10’s. He wasn’t considered a favourite for the event, as that honour was bestowed upon other former champions at the top of their games, such as Seve Ballesteros, Tom Watson and Bernhard Langer, as well as Australia’s Greg Norman. Counting Nicklaus out of any event, especially one that he had won five times and posted thirteen other top-10 finishes, would seem foolish, but that was the situation 27 years ago heading to Augusta.
The first two rounds did nothing to disprove these theories either, as Nicklaus opened with rounds of 74 and 71, which put him six shots back of the lead held by Ballesteros. A round of 3-under par 69 on Saturday got Nicklaus into a tie for 9th, four shots behind Norman’s lead, and before Sunday’s final round commenced, Nicklaus figured he needed to go low to have a chance. 66 would get him to 8-under par and a playoff, but a final round 65, and a 9-under par score would be good enough to take the tournament outright, he thought. Nicklaus was clearly no dummy.
Nicklaus was a few groups ahead of the leaders, which would end up being a bigger factor in the outcome than one would think, but it wasn’t an immediate advantage, as he played the first eight holes in even-par. A bogey on the par-3 12th would be the only blip on the radar for the next six holes, as Nicklaus would make four birdies and a par to climb to 5-under par as he walked to the 15th tee. In groups behind him, Norman was struggling a little bit, falling to 5-under par, but Tom Kite was making a charge, and Ballesteros got to 9-under par after a pair of eagles, most recently on the 13th.
Typically, the 15th at the Masters is a hole that players like to take advantage of, being a relatively short par-5. Gene Sarazen holed out with a 4-wood from the fairway in the final round of the 1935 Masters on the 15th, which was dubbed the “shot heard ’round the world”. Sarazen was down by three shots at the time to Craig Wood, and that hole out allowed Sarazen to get into a playoff with Wood to win the second ever Masters. Nicklaus wouldn’t need a hole out, but he knew what the situation was, down four shots to Ballesteros with only four to play, a birdie was needed, but an eagle would obviously be better. He couldn’t expect any player, much less one of Ballesteros’ quality, to come back to the field by that many shots.
Nicklaus hit a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway, and he had 200 yards left to the green. His son Jackie was caddying for him that week, and Nicklaus asked him how far he thought a three would go, and he didn’t mean a 3-iron. Nicklaus was thinking eagle the whole way, and he pulled out a 4-iron:
Jackie would say after that the ball never left the flag. With the way the clubs and balls were manufactured back then, Nicklaus couldn’t have done a whole lot better than that, especially given the situation. Nicklaus walked up to the green with a chance to get within two shots of Ballesteros’ lead, and he would tell reporters later that he knew the putt on that part of the green because he had pretty much the exact same putt almost 20 years prior and he missed because it didn’t break the way he thought it would. He wouldn’t make that same mistake again.
Mark Soltau of the San Francisco Examiner told ESPN: “I was walking back to the clubhouse and I heard a roar, and it was not your normal golf roar. This was a Bear roar.” Everyone loves a good story, and the idea that Jack Nicklaus at age 46 could win the 1986 Masters was starting to look possible, and the crowd knew it. They were fully behind the Nicklaus push. This was the guy that they grew up watching and idolizing. There was only one outcome that they wanted, and that was to see the Golden Bear wearing the green jacket one more time.
Nicklaus went to the 16th, suddenly within two shots of the lead held by Ballesteros. The pin was in its traditional Sunday position, in the back left-hand corner of the green, a spot that Nicklaus had seen dozens of times over the years.
” I knew it started right where he wanted to start it, and I said, ‘Be the right club’, and the ball honestly had not left the end of the tee. ” – Jackie Nicklaus
” And I just turned over and said ‘It is.’ I never looked at the ball, didn’t look at anything. I said it is because I knew. I knew that the ball was absolutely dead right. ” – Jack Nicklaus
You’ll notice a theme is starting to develop here. Nicklaus knows his swing and the course so well that he could probably play it with a blindfold on. Perhaps more importantly, the amped up crowd was starting to affect the other players on the course. After Nicklaus’ tee shot, Watson had to wait to attempt his eagle putt on 15 because the noise was so loud. Once it died down a little bit, Watson quickly put his ball down, missed his eagle putt and moved on, while Nicklaus had a short four footer to get within one of Ballesteros.
Seve Ballesteros was an interesting individual. He always thought the world was out to get him in some way, and that if something bad was going to happen, it would likely strike him at the worst possible moment. If you believe golf is the ultimate mental game, his winning of five majors and ninety-one professional titles is a real testament to the talent that Ballesteros possessed if that was his mindset going into a round. With Nicklaus’ made putt on 16, the crowd was going nuts, and much like Watson, it was enough to distract Ballesteros, who was in the middle of the fairway on 15, in a very similar spot to Nicklaus from about thirty minutes prior. He still had a one-shot lead on Nicklaus, but Ballesteros was said to be concerned about when the next roar was going to come, and he was also in-between a 4 and 5-iron. With the lake in front of the green, Ballesteros hit the 4-iron.
The reaction to it happening was pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Again, courtesy ESPN:
Tom Kite: “It was such a pathetic shot. He hit the ball five or six inches fat. It’s one of the worst shots I’ve ever seen a great player hit under tournament conditions. ”
Guy Yocom (Golf Digest): “It’s the only time I’ve seen a player of Seve Ballesteros’ quality choke like that and it was a choke. ”
Bill Elliott (London Daily Star): “Two weeks later I asked him about it and he looked at me and his eyes were almost blank and he said ‘I don’t know why that happened. I have no idea how that happened.’ “
Ballesteros putting that ball in the lake pretty much took him out of it mentally, even though he only ended up losing a shot. As soon as that ball went in the lake, a cheer went up from the crowd. Nick Price said that it was pretty obvious that Ballesteros was upset and hurt by that roar going up, even though I still think it was more of a cheer for Nicklaus dodging a bullet than it was people being happy that Seve plunked one. With Nicklaus further ahead on the course, Norman was in the last group and made birdies on 14 and 15 to get within one of the lead, but Nicklaus had an 18-footer for birdie on 17 to get to 9-under par and take a one-shot lead.
Jackie read it as a left-to-right putt, but in his dad’s words, “No, you always have to remember where Rae’s Creek is. All putts tend to favour a break towards Rae’s Creek.” We’ve all seen this clip before.
Jack Nicklaus, at age 46, was now walking to the 18th tee with a one-shot lead at the Masters. It’s hard to tell if he’s joking or not, but Nicklaus has always said that he’s gone back and tried to hit that same putt again, and the ball never goes back to Rae’s Creek. After hitting the putt, Nicklaus looked like he couldn’t believe what was happening.
With a one-shot lead heading to the last hole, Nicklaus needed a par to reach that 65 number he talked about coming into the round. At the very least, it looked like a 65 would get him into a playoff with one of the guys chasing him. After a perfect drive, Nicklaus put his approach onto the front of the green and hit a great putt to within two feet, where he tapped in for his par, a final round 65 and a scintillating back-nine 30. Pat Summerall and Ken Venturi were crying in the booth, struggling to come up with the words to properly describe what they just witnessed. After it was over, Nicklaus grabbed his son Jackie and they walked off the 18th green, seemingly content with the knowledge that they did all they could to win the tournament, but they just had to wait and see how it would play out.
Nicklaus didn’t think it was over with the guys left on the course. Ballesteros, Norman and Kite were ranked 2nd, 6th and 16th in that initial OWGR list. They weren’t randoms trying to chase Nicklaus down. Ballesteros was the first to fall, dropping a shot on the 17th to fall to 7-under par. Kite had played his standard, consistent round of golf, making few mistakes after the third hole. A birdie on 15 got him to 8-under par, and back-to-back pars gave him a chance to birdie the 18th and tie Nicklaus at 9-under par. He hit a great approach and had that chance:
As Kite said years later, not all great putts go in.
Now there was only one player left to catch Nicklaus. Greg Norman grew up like many, idolizing Nicklaus and the Masters, and now he had a chance to ruin a magical day for his hero. Norman made another birdie on 16 before hitting an absolutely horrendous, hooking tee shot on the 17th, leaving him with a near impossible approach into the green between two trees.
After the tournament, Nicklaus said that Norman’s approach was “one of the most phenomenal second shots I’ve ever seen. An unbelievable second shot he played to put that ball where he put it.” Price said he would give him another 200 balls in the same spot and he doubted he could get it within 15 feet of where that one ended up. It’s one of those shots that gets forgotten, but man, it doesn’t get much better than that. He would make the birdie putt to get into a tie for the lead going to the 18th, where a par would get him into a playoff. His tee shot, like most Norman drives, split the fairway. It certainly looked like a playoff was the most likely option, but Norman had made four consecutive birdies, so an outright win was certainly in the cards. Then, the unthinkable happened.
Norman pushed his approach WAY right and into the gallery. Norman told reporters after the round that he wasn’t thinking about getting into a playoff, he was going for the win right away. Regardless of what he was thinking, it was probably the worst shot of his career. He hit a decent recovery shot to the back of the green, but when the putt slid by on the left side, Nicklaus had his sixth green jacket, and both men were left to contemplate what happened on the 18th.
Norman: “I tried to back off of a shot instead of hitting a hard shot, which you should do under pressure and I bailed it out to the right. It was probably one of the few poor judgmental mistakes I’ve made in my life in the game of golf. ”
Nicklaus: “I saw his swing and how he took the club away from the ball and it didn’t look like Greg. He played a very good stretch coming down the end. Why he hit that shot, I don’t know, but he did. ”
Norman: “That was my test against my mentor and a guy I’ve idolized so much. Did that have a subconscious bearing on the outcome? Who knows? Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. “
There’s always been a notion that something supernatural happened at Augusta that day, and while I don’t subscribe to that theory, the chain of events that happened to allow Jack Nicklaus to win his sixth green jacket is crazy to think about. He needed two of the best players in the world to come back to him, and hit two of the worst shots in not only their own careers, but also in the history of the tournament. The counter to that statement would be that Ballesteros and Norman were both known to be a little flaky at times, but both of them in the same event when they were at the top of their games is still mind boggling. Did Norman subconsciously decide to let Nicklaus have the tournament? No, he didn’t. He hit a horrible shot at the worst possible time, much like Ballesteros had done a few hours before. It’s a dramatic narrative for some to run with that Norman simply didn’t want to do it to Nicklaus, but I can’t believe that it was anything more than a colossal mistake under pressure. Norman was seeking his first ever major win at the time. Any player, especially one as competitive as Greg Norman, would do anything to win a major, even if it meant stepping on the throat of his idol. Norman would go on to win two major championships, but as we’ll see in a later post, his heartbreak wasn’t over at Augusta National.
A lot of people think that the 1986 Masters was the greatest golf tournament ever based on the way everything unfolded, and in terms of drama, it’s right up there. As for Nicklaus, he hadn’t won a single tournament in two years, or a major in six. He became the the second oldest player to win a major at age 46. It was also the last tournament Nicklaus ever won on the PGA Tour. It speaks to the theory that when someone is comfortable on a golf course, they are always a threat to win, assuming they are still relatively talented. I’m not sure if Ken Venturi was correct in saying that we’ll never see something like this again, but Jack Nicklaus winning the 1986 Masters at age 46 is going to be tough to top.