This story originally appeared in the April 1, 2006 issue of Golfweek
Heading into 1986, the world of professional golf was looking for a hero. After decades of domination by a few big names, suddenly there was no paramount figure in golf.
The major championships in 1985 had been won by the stealth foursome of Bernhard Langer, Andy North, Sandy Lyle and Hubert Green. No golf icons there.
Golf had parity, and, frankly, the thrill was gone. Those who had been heroes were showing their age.
Arnold Palmer, 56, had not won a major championship for 22 years. Gary Player, 50, had not won a PGA Tour event since 1978. Lee Trevino, 46, had captured the last of his 29 PGA Tour victories. Tom Watson, 36, had claimed the last of his five British Open titles.
For the record, Tiger Woods was 10.
Even the legendary Jack Nicklaus, who turned 46 in January 1986, had not taken a major since double-dipping with the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 1980. Nicklaus already had 17 professional majors, plus two U.S. Amateurs, and this seemed likely to be his legacy.
In golf years, Nicklaus was old. It had been 24 years since his first major triumph at the 1962 U.S. Open, where he beat Palmer in an 18-hole playoff. Nobody was picking Nicklaus to win the Masters. I remember throwing $10 into a Masters pool and watching with curiosity as Nicklaus remained unselected until one of the late rounds.
The Masters is special. It is synonymous with spring, all flowery and green. It marks the unofficial start of the golf season around the country. There is no other ticket in golf that is so coveted. There is no other golf tournament with so much buzz.
In 1986, conversation and speculation focused mainly on Australian Greg Norman and Spaniard Seve Ballesteros. If any golfers in the world were closing in on hero status, it was these two. Norman led at 6 under after three rounds, while Ballesteros was just one behind. Nicklaus was four back.
I always will remember the 1986 Masters as the event that convinced me of something: Golf is without question the most wonderful game on the face of the earth.
Working for daily newspapers, I had covered the Super Bowl, the NCAA basketball championship, the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500. I had attended all four of golf’s major championships. I thought I had seen it all.
And then I picked up Nicklaus on the 11th hole of the final round of the 1986 Masters. He had birdied Nos. 9 and 10 with putts of 10 and 24 feet. As I watched him make a 20-footer for birdie on 11, the earth seemed to shimmy and shake along with the yelling, cheering, stomping fans. Nicklaus was two back of Ballesteros.
Every year, when I come home from the Masters, people ask what it was like. Often I don’t tell them the truth, but now I will wear my honesty cap: You can’t really see what is happening because there are too many spectators and not enough room in which to maneuver.
The Masters is all about absorbing the atmosphere. Occasionally it is possible to witness a shot at close range. Mostly, though, it is a long-distance pursuit.
There are, however, a handful of viewing towers reserved for the media. I climbed into one at No. 12, only to watch Nicklaus bogey the hole by missing the green, chipping to 6 feet, then missing the putt.
On the par-5 13th, I surged along with thousands of other fans. Nicklaus recorded an easy two-putt birdie.
He parred 14, then notched a decisive eagle on the par-5 15th. When his 12-foot putt found the hole, people went crazy. Many were talking out loud to no one in particular: “Can you believe it? Jack is back.” Others were babbling, almost as if they had been moved by some religious spirit.
By the end of the day, I was close to believing that some sort of divine intervention had occurred. Heading into the Masters, this man was 160th on the PGA Tour money list. In seven tournaments, he had missed three cuts and withdrawn from another event.
I saw him birdie 16 (4 feet) and 17 (12 feet). I climbed another tower beside the 18th green to watch Nicklaus two-putt from 40 feet for a closing par. The pin, so often located in the front left portion of the 18th green in the final round, was back right in 1986. No problem for the world’s greatest golfer, putting uphill with another major on the line.
The experience was consuming for all who were there. With all the noise and commotion, the ground literally felt like it was moving. It was a surreal experience. I half expected the trees to bow down in homage to Nicklaus.
I called my friend George Cohn, who was the wisest man I knew, just because I needed to express my feelings about how lucky I was to have seen this historic achievement.
“Did you ever think it was your destiny to tell this to hundreds of thousands of people?” he asked.
Well, no. My destiny seemed unimportant compared to that of Jack Nicklaus. I remember thinking then – as I do now – that no other sport is full of such pure emotion. This wasn’t a rivalry, with one team battling another. This was one man, riding the crest of a longevity that does not exist in any other major sport.
That did it for me. I decided that I wanted to write about golf and nothing else.
It remains a day I will never forget.