Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Golden Bear in 1986

April 13, 1986. The crowd at America’s most famous golf course, Augusta National, was on the brink of exploding. A mixture of desperation and jubilation hung in the air, because an aging golfer was turning back time in the 50th Masters golf tournament.

That golfer was Jack Nicklaus, the greatest ever to swing a club. He had won 17 professional major tournaments, by far a record. For decades, he had been the golfer to beat.

Now 46, his prime had passed. His best finish in seven tournaments that year was 39th. He was 160th on the PGA tour money list. The Golden Bear, as Nicklaus was known, was in hibernation.

But, after going one over par through his first two games, Nicklaus shot a pleasant three-under round on Saturday to enter the final round at two under, four off the lead.

He treaded water through the first eight holes, walking to the ninth tee still at two under par, now five strokes back of the lead. Then, as Rick Reilly, who was covering his first Masters for Sports Illustrated, wrote, “All heaven broke loose.”

Nicklaus then embarked on one of the greatest charges in golf history. He birdied three straight, bogeyed No. 12, then rebounded with a birdie on No. 13, the culmination of Augusta’s fabled Amen Corner, to draw within two. However, leader Seve Ballesteros eagled 13 as Nicklaus made par on 14, pushing Nicklaus to four back.

With four holes to play, Nicklaus boomed a drive from his career’s highlight reel on the par-5 No. 15, which led to that moment of anticipation, desperation and excitement. Nicklaus’ son, Jackie, was his caddie. Jackie was about the same age as some of the golfers the elder Nicklaus was trying to beat. Nicklaus looked at his son before that second shot on 15 and asked, “You think a three would go very far here?” He didn’t mean club. He meant a score of three, an eagle. “Let’s see it,” Jackie said.

Nicklaus stuck a four iron from 202 yards to 12 feet. He buried the eagle putt as the crowd roared. Jack was back. Two off the lead.

At 16, a beautiful, dangerous little par-3 tucked in the trees with a pond next to the green, Nicklaus fired at the flagstick. “Be right,” Jackie said as the ball cut through the air. “It is,” Nicklaus said casually as he bent down to pick up his tee, even with the ball still in the air. The ball rolled within inches of the cup and stopped three feet from the hole. The crowd was thunderous, cheering and cheering as Nicklaus walked to the 16th green, smiling in wonder, his yellow shirt and hair shining in the Georgia sun.

Meanwhile, the leader Ballesteros kept hearing those roars ahead of him. It’s hard to tell how much that affected him, but he hit his approach shot into the water on 15 and made bogey. With a Nicklaus tap-in birdie on 16, the old man was tied for the lead.

As Nicklaus walked off 16 to the 17th tee, Jackie tried to stay behind his dad and not look at him, lest he lose control of his emotions. Course workers were leaving their posts at concession stands and running to see Nicklaus. Running is a no-no at Augusta, but fans ran anyway, climbing trees and shoulders to catch a glimpse. Before Nicklaus hit his tee shot on 17, he paused, fighting back tears.

Nicklaus willed in another birdie putt at 17 to take the lead, raising his oversized putter in jubilation as the ball disappeared in the cup. On the broadcast, Verne Lundquist whispered, then shouted, “Maybe… YES, SIR!” The grounds at Augusta National shook.

Nicklaus made a short putt for par at 18, basking in the applause, applause for the decades of his career, and for this most special effort. He hugged Jackie as they walked off the green.

With Nicklaus in the clubhouse, the course foiled all other challengers as though it was a living thing. Tom Kite and Greg Norman each missed medium-length putts on 18 to seal Nicklaus’ win, the last and most remarkable of his 18 major titles.

Nicklaus major wins spanned a preposterous 24 years. His record six Masters titles spanned 23 years. He was a relentless competitor, and he has more top-three finishes in golf’s majors than Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods combined.

Nicklaus had many special golf moments before the 1986 Masters. He even had a few after, including a four-under final round at age 58 in the 1998 Masters, closing within two of the lead despite a bad hip; and the final hole of his professional career, at St. Andrews, the Home of Golf, when he danced around the Valley of Sin and made a birdie.

But that epic charge, a back-nine 30, in 1986 was the most emotional win of Nicklaus’ career. For those who love golf, for those who have great memories with their dads and sons, for everyone looking to stay young, it’s a story to savor, even 25 years after that glorious day in the sun.

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