Silver anniversary of Nicklaus’ last Masters title

Posted April 03, 2011, at 6:48 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jim Furyk and two other Pennsylvania juniors sat at the table closest to the television in the grill room just as the final round of the 1986 Masters came on. Hours later, every table in Media Heights clubhouse was taken.

Lee Trevino was in the Atlanta airport, drinking scotch at the bar as he watched the final minutes of the telecast, begging the airline to hold the flight just a little while longer.

Ernie Els, fresh off winning the South African Amateur, stayed up past midnight with his father to watch the unthinkable. Scott Verplank, who played the first two rounds with Jack Nicklaus that year, missed the cut and was back at Oklahoma State, getting goose bumps as Nicklaus charged through the back nine at Augusta National.

Everyone remembers where they were on April 13, 1986.

The Masters will be played for the 75th time this week, a major filled with special moments. Few of them resonate like one 25 years ago, when Nicklaus shot 30 on the back nine to beat Greg Norman, Tom Kite, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Price, all in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

“I was lucky to see it,” Els said. “And we are still talking about it today. That’s probably the best major I ever saw on television. I don’t know if we’ll ever hear the noise like that again.”

Nicklaus was believed to be past his prime, incapable of winning another green jacket.

He had not won in two years, and the best he had to show for 1986 was a tie for 36th in the Hawaiian Open. He missed the cut in two majors the year before, the first time he had done that as a pro. And then there was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story by Tom McCollister about the big names who were not playing well going into the Masters.

The one paragraph that stood out: “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.”

The details of his 7-under 65 — particularly the back nine — remain so vivid that when Nicklaus was asked if he remembers his club selection, he rattled off the final seven holes as if he had just walked off the course.

A few holes stand out.

Kite and Ballesteros each eagled the eighth hole, each eliciting a huge cheer. Nicklaus backed off his birdie putt and said to the gallery, “Let’s make some noise of our own.” He made the putt and was on his way.

Then came the par-5 15th, when he was still four shots behind Ballesteros, 202 yards from the hole. He turned to his son, Jackie, who was caddying for him and said, “You think a 3 would go very far here?” He hit 4-iron to 12 feet for an eagle 3.

Tom Watson was playing in the group behind Nicklaus and stood there watching, arms folded.

“I’ve seen that happen enough times with Jack,” Watson said. “I didn’t surprise me. Obviously, I knew how excited everybody was about it by the electricity you could feel in the air. The air was tense. It was very tense.”

On the par-3 16th, Nicklaus hit 5-iron right at the flag, and as he stooped to remove his tee, his son said, “Be right.”

“It is,” Nicklaus said.

He holed the 3-foot birdie putt, then rolled in an 11-foot birdie putt on the 17th, as famous as any. Nicklaus knew it was good before it reached the cup, and he raised the putter with his left hand as it fell.

“Yes, sir!” Verne Lundquist said on the CBS telecast.

Tiger Woods, who had just turned 10, was playing golf with his father that morning. They came home to watch the Masters, and of all the shots, it was the putt at the 17th that sticks with Woods.

“Just how the putter went up, and how basically he walked it in,” he said. “I don’t remember anyone every walking a putt in like that.”

Furyk was 15, just starting to get into golf. He and his two buddies looked around the clubhouse and noticed how full it was.

“As word got out that Nicklaus was leading, it really filled up,” Furyk said. “About two-thirds of the way through the telecast, it was the three of us sitting at the first table in front of the television, and when I turned around, it was filled with a bunch of guys having a beer, and the place was packed. It was kind of cool.”

It was even cool for some of the guys who didn’t win — maybe not at the time, but certainly years later. Price, who had become the first player to shoot 63 at Augusta in the third round, was in the final group with Norman.

“We were walking past 17 green on 15 fairway when Jack made that putt,” Price said. “The green is up a little bit, so we can sort of see Jack’s head. And we saw the putter go up and we knew it was going in. And the loudest roar I have ever heard on a golf course was right there and right then.”

One of the more famous rules at the Masters is no running is allowed. But there was Nicklaus, defying logic and well …

“People were running everywhere,” Price said. “You saw all of the guys just running, trying to find a spot, because they knew it was something magical that was happening.”

It all fell into place. Ballesteros hit 4-iron into the water on the 15th. Kite missed a birdie putt on the 18th to force a playoff. Norman made a charge of his own until he sent his approach into the gallery on the 18th and made bogey.

Price wound up in fifth place, but what a show.

“Outside of me winning those three majors that I did, it was one of the highlights of my golfing experience, my golfing life,” Price said. “Even when I won my majors, it didn’t feel anything like that atmosphere.”

Nicklaus does not like to rank the importance of the 18 majors he won, especially the six green jackets. His previous Masters win was special in its own right, the way he beat Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf down the stretch, that 40-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole.

But he understands why so many remember 1986.

“It was a neat win, and one that I guess nobody really expected me to be in contention at that point in my career,” he said. “Even me.”

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