The spectators packed around Augusta’ sun-dappled 16th green rose to their feet, arms thrust skywards, as the old warrior, his yellow shirt hunched over in that familiar putting stance, sank another birdie to get to within one shot of the lead.
The roars reverberating around the towering pines was “quadrophonic,” coming from all sides, according to his playing partner Sandy Lyle. Few could have predicted this kind of hullabaloo.
But Nicklaus, the record 17-time major champion, knew nostalgia couldn’t hit the shots for him. He had to quell his own excitement and harness the energy.
“The ovation was unbelievable,” said Nicklaus. “I kept getting tears in my eyes, but I was saying, ‘Hey let’s hold that back, you’ve got some golf to play.'”
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Pulling into Augusta National that April, Nicklaus’ form appeared in terminal decline. Family and his various business interests had pushed golf into the back seat.
A newspaper story ahead of the Masters, penned by Tom McCollister of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said he was “gone, done,” and his “clubs were too rusty.” A friend of Nicklaus’ pinned it to his fridge in the house they were renting in Augusta that week.
Nicklaus knew his career was winding down. But done? Rusty clubs? Not so fast, he thought. And certainly not at Augusta, where he had already won a record five green jackets.
“I might have been 46, but my nerves were still good,” he said. “And I did not want to leave the game playing poorly.”
With his 24-year-old eldest son Jackie as his caddie, Nicklaus opened with a modest 74 but improved with rounds of 71 and 69 to sit in a tie for ninth going into the final day.
Starting four strokes off the lead of Australian Greg Norman, he set off in company with Scotsman Lyle, the British Open champion. “We weren’t really the main contenders; we were probably 30-40 minutes in front of the leaders and after nine holes not much was going on,” said Lyle.
But the old adage goes that the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday. And that’s exactly when Nicklaus made his move on an epic, sun-soaked afternoon
He had flickered into life with a birdie at the ninth, and when he stroked in another 25 footer for birdie on the 10th , the needle surged again.
Deep down in Amen Corner — golf’s most revered stretch of holes — Nicklaus added a third straight birdie with another lengthy putt across the 11th.
“That was the first time I jumped. I was pumped and started getting really excited,” said Jackie in a TV interview afterwards.
‘What about my old heart?’
Remarkably, he was now only two shots behind the lead of Norman and Seve Ballesteros, Spain’s two-time champion. It threatened to be a short-lived cameo when he pulled his tee shot long and left over the water on the short 12th and made a bogey.
But on the 13th tee fortune was on Nicklaus’ side as his attempted drive around the corner flirted with trees lining the left of the hole before settling in the fairway.
“Dad, that was no good for a 24-year-old heart,” Jackie later recalled saying. Nicklaus Snr. laughed and told Lyle.
“Jack said to me, ‘Hear what he just said? What about my old heart?'” said Lyle.
‘The eagle lit a fuse’
From the middle of the par-five 15th fairway, Nicklaus peered down at the lime-bright green beckoning from beyond the pond. “Jack Nicklaus has 200 yards and he’s never needed an eagle more,” whispered CBS commentator Ben Wright in his polished English brogue.
After much mulling with Jackie, Nicklaus opted for a four iron and stroked the ball over the water, stopping it in the heart of the narrow putting surface, safe from the slick slope behind. A roar rose up from the packed galleries around the green and broke like a wave up the fairway. “And he’s got a very, very good chance,” said Wright, with a hint of excitement.
On the green, Nicklaus and Jackie stalked the putt, surveying it from every angle. When the din had subsided, he took his hunched stance and rolled it through the shadows and into the hole for an eagle three. Jackie leapt into the air. The thunderous roar told the story. Hope and belief surged for the old favourite. Now just two strokes back. “Yes, Sir!” urged Wright. “The battle is joined. My goodness. There is life in the old Bear yet. Magnificent stuff.”
“That’s when I began to think something was really occurring,” said Lyle, who was leaning on his putter as Nicklaus’ ball dropped yards in front of him. “The eagle lit a fuse and got the crowd going unbelievably and they never stopped from there to the 18th.”
As Nicklaus stood in deep shadow on the 16th tee, debutant CBS announcer Jim Nantz asked his summarizer Tom Weiskopf what would be going through his mind. “If I knew the way he thought I would have won this tournament,” said Weiskopf, the 1973 British Open champion.
Nicklaus made his swing, the ball soared towards the green, took two hops and then checked and span left, trickling down the slope to three feet below the hole.
The pines, acting like the reeds in a giant mouth organ, amplified the roar. Once the clamor had died down Nicklaus sank the putt for birdie. One back.
“The noise was quadrophonic, coming from above, from the side — I think even God was laughing,” added Lyle.
“The Bear has come out of hibernation,” purred Nantz.
‘Seve or Jack?’
Behind them, Ballesteros was swashbuckling his way down the 15th.
Veteran golf photographer David Cannon was following the Spaniard, his favorite player. Ballesteros would later have Cannon’s iconic image of his 1984 Open victory at St Andrews tattooed on his arm, but now Cannon was wracked with indecision.
“I was following Seve and hearing these epic roars around the course,” he told CNN.
“Follow Seve or go with Jack? I literally changed direction 10 times. Luckily my brain said, ‘hang on, this is the greatest golfer there’s ever been and this is his chance to win another major. You have to go there.'”
Cannon diverted from the 15th fairway to wait for Nicklaus behind the 17th. But a huge groan came from down in the valley to his left. Ballesteros, his head bowed in his white visor, had dunked his second into the water on 15.
Nicklaus, on the 17th tee, sensed what had occurred from the roar — groans mixed with cheers.
His drive drifted left into trees and he had given himself a tricky second shot. Still, he found the green and had about a 12 footer for birdie.
Cannon lined up behind a little ridge, hoping desperately no one would get in his way.
On the green, Nicklaus and Jackie consulted over the putt. Jackie thought the putt would break right but his dad wasn’t so sure.
Nicklaus recalled the Augusta lore that all putts break towards Rae’s Creek, the stream that runs in front of the 12th green and is the lowest part of the course.
“You sure?” asked Jackie.
“‘Pretty sure. I think it will come back to the left because of Rae’s Creek,'” he later recalled. “‘There’s always that influence back there.'”
Nicklaus barely stroked his putt, starting it left before the ball veered to the right and then, sure enough, straightened back up as it neared the hole.
“Maybe,” said CBS announcer Verne Lundquist. Nicklaus dropped a knee and raised his left arm in the air with his putter as if to chase the ball into the hole. “Yes, Sir,” shouted Lundquist as the ball dropped. Nicklaus’ double arm pump punctuated the word “Sir.”
Cannon fired away as the ball dropped. Nicklaus’ raised arm has become another of golf’s most iconic images.
“I could see Jack clearly. I had a lovely background with the sun at a beautiful angle and it made an amazing picture,” said Cannon, who faced a nervous wait until his shots were developed back in the UK the following Tuesday. “The relief and excitement was staggering,” he added.
“Gone, done” Nicklaus was now the sole leader of the Masters and Augusta was fizzing.
Nicklaus emerged from the maelstrom onto the 18th tee. Digging deep, he unleashed his final drive through the narrow chute of trees and found the fairway.
His second shot from 175 yards came to rest on the bottom tier of the back-to-front sloping green, and he walked up to the final hole through an ear-ringing standing ovation.
“In all my years in golf that to me was most the emotional and largest ovation I have ever heard,” he said.
Nicklaus’ first putt came to rest a few feet from the hole and he drained his next for a par four to seal a blistering back nine of 30 and give him the clubhouse lead at nine under.
He shook hands with Lyle and his caddie Dave Musgrove and embraced Jackie. The pair walked off the green with their arms around each other’s shoulders.
“Oh, beautiful,” said CBS commentator Ken Venturi.
But for all his heroics, Nicklaus’ fate was in the hands of others. Tom Kite, playing in the group behind, had a 12-footer for birdie on 18 to force a playoff, but he missed by a whisker.
Despite his dunking on 15, Ballesteros was still very much in contention until a three-putt bogey on 17 knocked him back.
Norman, though, had coming charging back with four birdies in a row from the 14th and was tied again for the lead at nine under after 17.
The Bear was being hunted by the “Great White Shark,” as Norman was known.
Nicklaus, watching on from the Jones Cabin, was becoming increasingly anxious and got up off the couch to pace the room.
The Australian flushed his drive up 18, but he pushed his second shot into the gallery to the right of the green, ramping up the drama. From an opening made among the patrons chipped back onto the green, but left himself a 15 footer for par to take Nicklaus into a playoff.
He missed, and Nicklaus was crowned the second oldest major champion ever behind the 48-year-old PGA champion Julius Boros.
Augusta crackled and popped. Golf had never seen anything like it. Veteran writers struggled with their words and thoughts trying to do justice to Nicklaus’ feat.
McCollister was filing copy when Nicklaus first began answering reporters questions in the press room, but when he walked in the champion broke off his answer and said, “Hi, Tom. Thanks.”
McCollister, who died in 1999, fired back, “Glad I could help.”
Tiger’s tale of redemption may have had more back story, but for feel-good factor Nicklaus’ 1986 Masters win aged 46 will be hard to beat.