Golfweek writers recall Nicklaus at ’86 Masters
This story originally appeared in the April 1, 2006 issue of Golfweek.
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Jack Nicklaus: Still unforgettable
Forty-six-year-old men do not win major championships. They just don’t.
They don’t win the Masters, but instead sit on couches with cold mugs of beer and big bowls of pretzels and watch as a Sunday unfolds at venerable Augusta National.
Jack Nicklaus must have made some deal with the devil in April 1986.
Starting back in the pack, with a Hall of Fame cast in the hunt, he discovered magic in the final 10 holes at the National, playing those holes in 7 under par.
It was mystical, it was magical, it was beautiful.
The sounds still reverberate through the tallest pines and the most stately dogwoods that stand sentinel over one of the most picturesque settings anywhere.
How good was Sunday at the 1986 Masters?
Nicklaus says it’s the one event that, when it appears on his television screen, even he stops and watches. That good.
“You would think pretty soon that they would just forget about it and move on,” Nicklaus said as the 20th anniversary of his 18th professional major victory neared. He knows better.
A day doesn’t pass when some memory of that Sunday isn’t triggered.
“I don’t know,” said Nicklaus, trying his best to explain the impact. “It’s the only golf tournament that I can recall that everybody, when I see them, they turn around and said, Jack, ’86 Masters, I was at a motel, or I was at an airport, or I was in this bar, or I was here and I couldn’t leave, my wife was yelling at me to leave and I said, ‘No, no, we’re not leaving until this is over.’
“I’ve had thousands of people who have told me that story. I’ve never heard that with any other golf tournament.”
And he has won quite a few.
– Jeff Babineau
Verne Lundquist: The call
The drama had been building since Jack Nicklaus birdied No. 10, and Verne Lundquist could feel it as the Golden Bear worked his way around the back nine of Augusta that Sunday afternoon.
“For two hours I listened to the waves of applause and roars that followed Jack,” Lundquist recalls. “I was in the TV tower behind the 17th hole, and I would take my headset off on occasion as he played his way to me, and I would hear those sounds.”
Things got quiet, however, when Nicklaus contemplated his approach to 17. And when he guided a low shot between two pines to 12 feet from the hole, the scene was set for the biggest call Lundquist ever made.
“We went to another hole after Jack put his second shot onto the green, and I had a moment to think about what I would say,” Lundquist recalled. “I told myself to keep it simple. I was aware of the importance of that putt because Seve had put his second shot into the drink at 15 about the same time Jack had hit his approach to 17. I also knew Jack had a chance to take the lead if he made that putt. It was slightly downhill, and he hit it perfectly. And when he made it, I just reacted.”
Actually, Lundquist reacted before the ball dropped into the hole. “When it was about a foot away, I said, ‘Maybe,’ ” he explained. “And then I said, ‘Yes, sir!’ It was the first time I had ever said that on the air, and Peter Kostis told me years later that Ben Wright had said the same thing earlier that day, from the 15th. So I guess it just slipped into my subconscious.”
Lundquist was the only announcer in the tower that day at 17, and it was his first year covering that hole.
“The noise was amazing after Jack made his putt, and I remember putting my headset down in front of me as he walked to the 18th tee and just listening,” he said. “I never heard a group of people outdoors make that kind of sound.”
The veteran CBS broadcaster often is reminded of his historic call, and several weeks before the 2006 Masters, a spectator at a college basketball game he was covering approached him and asked if he would sign a copy of the famous photograph of Nicklaus stalking his putt on 17.
That gave Lundquist an idea. “I realized then that Jack and I had never talked about that moment,” he said. “And I had nothing to really commemorate it. So, I got a copy of the picture myself and sent it to Jack so he could sign it. When it comes back, it’s going up on my office wall.”
– John Steinbreder
Barbara Nicklaus: All in the family
Jack Nicklaus had a few surprise guests at the 1986 Masters – including his mother, Helen, who returned to Augusta National having not seen her son play a Masters since 1959, and his sister, Marilyn Hutchinson. With his oldest son, Jackie, on the bag that week, Nicklaus didn’t lack for family support.
“I think the neat part of that week, in my opinion, was having my son Jack on the bag and having my mother there,” Jack Nicklaus said. “It was the first time she had actually been to the Masters since I was a pro. She went down the first year when I was an amateur. And I don’t know why, but she said she wanted to go back one more time, and she did.”
She picked a good year.
Of course, Barbara Nicklaus was always the strongest supporter. She had seen her husband play more than 50 rounds at Augusta National, often walking alone in his massive galleries.
Throughout the round, Jack and Barbara would make eye contact. It was a way for them to connect and for Barbara to quietly show her support.
When Jack tapped in for his par at the 18th hole, Barbara never saw the hug that her husband gave Jackie. She eventually would see it on tape later that night at their rented house.
For Barbara and Jack, the final hour of the Masters started with a hug in Butler Cabin. She stayed calm as her husband paced. And when Greg Norman missed his final putt, Jack owned his sixth Masters, and the celebration started.
“It was so cute when they finally realized that Jack had won – I mean, all the security guys in there just went wild,” Barbara said. “And it was wonderful. They were so happy, and it just made us so happy.”
– Alex Miceli
Frank Chirkinian: Listening to ‘valley’ sounds
Frank Chirkinian was working as executive producer and director of the Masters for CBS Sports in 1986, and his most vivid memories are the sounds he heard that Sunday afternoon.
“The first thing that comes to mind is the way Jack was hitting the ball,” Chirkinian said. “There was a crispness to every iron he hit, and it made you realize each one was going to be a very good golf shot.”
Then, of course, there were the galleries, and Chirkinian clearly remembers the roars that came up through what he calls “the valley” at Augusta National.
“One sound told you someone had gotten an eagle, and another told you it was a birdie,” he said.
To Chirkinian, however, perhaps the most memorable sound was that collective groan that comes from a gallery that has just witnessed a player make a key mistake.
“And Jack heard that sound on Sunday as he was getting ready to hit his putt on 17,” Chirkinian said. “It came from 15 when Seve (Ballesteros) hit his second shot into the water, and Jack knew exactly what had happened.
“I think it pumped him up, actually, and you could tell by his reaction when that putt went in how pumped up he was. He showed a lot of emotion with that smile and his tongue sticking out, like it was the first putt he ever made.”
While the volume rose along Augusta’s fairways, things remained calm in the CBS control room.
“It was a very quiet truck,” Chirkinian said. “Only one voice was ever allowed to be heard there, and it was mine.”
– John Steinbreder
Tiger Woods: ‘Pretty cool’ pose
Tiger Woods, the man chasing Jack Nicklaus’ record for career majors, was 10 years old and in fifth grade (and still three years away from getting his first recruiting letter from Stanford) when Nicklaus captured his sixth Masters and 18th professional major.
Woods said he doesn’t remember much about that Sunday in 1986, but he does remember one particular birdie Nicklaus made.
“I just remember the putt on 17; that was it,” Woods said. “I was . . . 9 or 10, whatever it was, and I just remember him hitting that putt on 17 and his arm going up, and I thought that looked pretty cool.”
Woods was asked if he immediately put the putter raised toward the sky into his own childhood repertoire.
“I just thought it looked kind of cool,” he said, laughing. “I had never seen anyone do that, because obviously I was only 9 or 10 at the time.”
By the time Jack got his green jacket, Woods probably was off skateboarding somewhere.
– Jeff Babineau
Sandy Lyle: Hair-raising experience
Sandy Lyle had never played with Jack Nicklaus before the final round of the 1986 Masters. And they’ve never been paired together since.
“Can you believe my luck?” Lyle asks, cracking an oversized smile.
It’s a day Lyle is reminded about often, and it still seems improbable.
“There were no signs the first eight holes,” he says.
Nicklaus’ back-nine charge remains fresh in Lyle’s memory. He begins spouting out his favorite moments of the round like a grown man telling of going to the ballpark with his dad for the first time. “We were walking up 13 and Jack turned to me and said, ‘Did you hear what Jackie said to me? He says this is too much for his young heart to handle. What about me? I’m 46.’ ”
Lyle remembers the putts best. First, there was the eagle putt at No. 15.
“I’ve never heard a roar like that. The crowd went bananas,” he says. “It raised the hairs on the back of my neck.”
Lyle says that after Nicklaus knocked his tee shot stiff at the par-3 16th, it was apparent everyone in the gallery was rooting for Nicklaus. Spectators told him about Ballesteros’ watery fate at the 15th.
Then came the putt on the 17th.
“(Jack) knew how important that putt was at 17, but it was also his hardest putt of the day,” Lyle remembers. “It had to be paced just right. It had to be firm enough to keep the line but it could’ve easily gone flying by the hole. It was a very steady putt that just knew its way in.”
Lyle said Nicklaus was unlucky that his approach shot to 18 rolled down the hill to the lower level of the green, leaving him a testy 40-foot putt.
“He hit a hell of a putt. It stopped inches short,” Lyle remembers. “If he made that putt there, I would’ve bowed to him.”
Lyle never was a factor that day, shooting 71 and finishing T-11, his best finish at Augusta to that point. In 1988, he won the green jacket thanks in no small part to what he had learned from Nicklaus two years earlier.
“Jack was so focused,” Lyle says. “He kept the same rhythm and the same pace all day, and that was something I learned from and tried to mimic.”
– Adam Schupak
Dave Musgrove: A ringside seat
English caddie Dave Musgrove turned up at Augusta National that Sunday hoping boss Sandy Lyle would walk away in the green jacket. Musgrove had been on the winning bag at two majors by then – the 1979 and ’85 British Opens with Seve Ballesteros and Lyle, respectively – but both paled in comparison with the ‘86 Masters.
“I’ve never known such noise on a golf course as I heard that day,” Musgrove remembers. “When Nicklaus birdied the 11th, I could hardly hear, it was so noisy.”
Musgrove not only is one of the game’s best caddies, he is one of its most astute observers. He disagrees with those who say Nicklaus won because he shot 30 on the back nine. He believes the key moment came when Nicklaus stood on the 16th green.
“Jack and Sandy both hit to about 4 feet on 16. (Tom) Watson and (Tommy) Nakajima were playing behind us but wouldn’t putt out on the 15th until Nicklaus had hit his putt,” recalls Musgrove. “That meant Seve (who was playing two groups behind) had to wait at the top of the hill on 15 to play his second shot.
“If Seve hadn’t had to wait, then he would have pulled out a 5-iron and hit it as hard as he could and put it on the green. But because he had to wait, he was given time to think. It put him in two minds. So he went with a 4-iron and tried to cut it up and land it softly on the green. He put it in the water and that cost him the Masters. I believe he would have won if not for the long wait on the 15th fairway.”
Musgrove’s other abiding memory is the way Nicklaus treated it like a social round.
“I’ve always loved playing with Jack, but that day it was like we were just having a day out,” he says. “He talked to us the whole way around.”
Musgrove also was at Lyle’s side two years later when the Scot won his green jacket, a feat Musgrove still believes Nicklaus inspired. But, to Musgrove, even Lyle’s victory does not compare with that special Sunday in ’86.
“It’s my best moment in golf – better than winning majors with Sandy and Seve,” Musgrove says. “I got a ringside seat to watch history being made.”
– Alistair Tait
Greg Norman: I want a mulligan
Even now, 20 years later, Greg Norman says his “biggest regret in golf” came on his last full shot at the 1986 Masters. Even now he longs for a mulligan.
Norman came to that last hole tied for the lead with Jack Nicklaus. After driving a 3-wood onto the 18th fairway, he faced 186 yards to a back-right pin. He decided to hit a soft 4-iron instead of a hard 5-iron and blocked the approach right of the green. He chipped to 16 feet, missed the par putt and finished a stroke back.
“My first thought was to hit a hard-5, but I talked myself out of it,” he said. “Wrong choice. I should have stayed in attack mode rather than trying to finesse a longer club. That’s what had been working for me all day. Unfortunately, I was so pumped that I hit it too hard and pushed it into the gallery. If I could have one career mulligan, I’d take it there.”
Back then, Norman’s misses under pressure tended to go right. The year before he blocked a key 6-iron approach at the U.S. Open.
In the ’86 Masters, Norman began the final round in the lead at 6-under-par 210. He dropped back after snap-hooking a drive and double-bogeying No. 10, but he got back in the mix with birdies on Nos. 14 through 17. The last came from 12 feet after he hit a marvelous pitch-and-run shot over a hill. All those loud roars for Nicklaus motivated him, he said.
“I continued to hear the roars throughout the back nine and I knew I had to turn it up a notch,” said Norman, who estimated he and Nick Price played before only about 50 people in the last pairing. As fans flocked toward Nicklaus, Norman told Price, “Let’s do something to wake these people.”
He did so with that four-birdie run but would end up with his first of three runner-up finishes at Augusta. Close often, but no jacket.
Still, despite what he called a “number of heartbreaking defeats” and referring to Augusta National as his “cruel temptress,” Norman maintains the Masters is his favorite tournament.
– Jeff Rude
Tom Kite: A birdie away
Golf might be a game of inches, but it was even less than that for Tom Kite at the ’86 Masters.
Kite needed to birdie one of the last two holes to tie Jack Nicklaus. Both he and those last two birdie putts came painfully close.
At 17, he barely missed an 18-footer of which he says, “I hit as good of a putt as you can hit. It was one of those I thought I should’ve made.”
He had an even better chance at 18. He hit a 6-iron from 176 yards to 12 feet short of the back-right pin. His uphill putt to tie hung on the edge.
“I made that putt,” Kite would say after shooting 70-74-68-68. “It just didn’t go in. Honest to God . . . I made it so many times in the practice rounds – seven or eight times – and it never broke left once.”
This one broke left, not to mention his heart. It was the second of Kite’s three runner-up finishes and one of his 11 top-6 showings at Augusta.
Not a long hitter, Kite played the four par 5s in 5 under par the final day. Kite and playing partner Seve Ballesteros eagled the par-5 eighth without using their putters. First, Kite holed a wedge shot from 81 yards. Then Ballesteros dunked one from 40 paces.
At that point, Nicklaus was an afterthought.
“Quite honestly,” Kite said, “I thought it was coming down to a battle between Seve, me and Greg (Norman).”
Kite recalls all those back-nine Nicklaus roars and hearing cheers so loud it was hard to hear yourself think.
“Going down that walkway through the people between 13 and 14, the noise was deafening,” said Kite, who birdied 13.
He calls it one of the best Masters ever, but he wonders how people might be viewing it had Nicklaus not won.
“Had Greg or Seve or Tom Kite won, I don’t know if people would be calling it one of the best Masters ever,” he said. “But it was Jack. Still, I have great memories from that tournament. For years I could remember every shot that week.”
– Jeff Rude
Tom McCollister: ‘Nobody that old wins the Masters’
Tom McCollister, longtime golf writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was scrambling to piece together an advance for the 50th Masters in 1986 to run the Sunday before the tournament. He came up with a preview touching on several players.
He wrote: “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.”
Jack Nicklaus probably never would have seen the piece, but family friend and frequent prankster John Montgomery made sure the article was taped prominently in a place Nicklaus was sure to see it again and again – on the refrigerator in Jack’s rented home.
Nicklaus is a prideful man, so obviously such disparaging words had to motivate him, right? Actually, he downplays the significance.
“I had enough motivation to play golf,” he said recently. “I didn’t worry too much about articles.”
Nonetheless, after Nicklaus received his sixth green jacket and made his way to his lengthy sit-down interview with the media, he asked, “Where’s Tom McCollister?” He was told McCollister was on deadline, filing a story. But later in the interview, McCollister entered the room.
“Thanks, Tom,” Jack said upon seeing him.
Answered McCollister, “Glad I could help.”
Laughter drowned out what McCollister said next, a witty line only a few around him heard: “(Tom) Watson wants me to write about him next year.”
Glenn Sheeley worked with McCollister for many years in Atlanta, covering golf at the Journal-Constitution from 1979 to 2005. His said his good friend T-Mac was a pretty good golfer with a tight draw who, as a journalist, was “all about fairness.” After several years covering NASCAR, McCollister was set to return to covering more golf in 1999. He was a month away from the Masters when he was killed in a car accident at age 61. Today, three journalism scholarships are awarded annually in his name.
“That whole thing in 1986 was amazing, and Tom laughed about it a lot,” Sheeley said. “He had a good relationship with Jack. He probably felt bad about writing what he did, and I’m glad Jack had some fun with it.”
– Jeff Babineau
Jackie Nicklaus: Cool and calm – until the 15th
Making victory extra sweet for Jack Nicklaus was the fact he was able to share it with his oldest son, Jackie, who was on the bag. It wasn’t the first time Jack had Jackie on the bag. In fact, the two came close to winning a U.S. Open in 1982 at Pebble Beach.
Tom Watson would win that famous Open at Pebble, and what Jackie took from the experience was that he got far too emotional during play. So at Augusta four years later, Jackie, a good player who was coming off a victory at the North & South Amateur, made a concerted effort to stay calmer.
Father and son had some great exchanges as the day wore on. When Jack pulled a 3-wood slightly and nearly caught a branch down the left side of the par-5 13th, his son said, “Dad, that’s not good on a 24-year-old heart.”
When the two stood in the fairway at No. 15, with Jack prepared to go at the flag with his second shot, he turned to Jackie and said, “How far do you think a 3 will go here?”
“I think it will go a long way,” he answered.
The two were talking score, not what club Jack was about to hit.
As far as Jackie staying levelheaded and calm, that plan pretty much went out the window when the elder Nicklaus buried his eagle putt on that 15th green. Jackie jumped so high his dad told him he should have played basketball, not golf, at the University of North Carolina.
“He holed that,” said Jackie, “and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, look out!’ ”
On the par-3 16th, Nicklaus hit a towering 5-iron that took off in the direction of the flag. “Be right,” Jackie called out.
Jack, as he reached down to pick up his tee, cracked, “It is.”
Said Jack: “It was sort of a cocky remark, and I don’t normally make that. But I had so much confidence in what was going on, that’s what I did.”
After a birdie at 17 and two putts for a clinching par at 18, father and son embraced and made their way off the course.
“I love that picture,” Jack said, “just watching the two of us walking off.”
– Jeff Babineau
Ernie Els: Late-night treat
As a teen growing up in South Africa, Ernie Els had strict rules for bedtime: It was lights out by 10 p.m., with few exceptions.
“I remember, on Tuesdays, I could watch ‘Dallas,’ ” Els said of the old American television series, “because it ended about 10 (minutes) ’til 10. I could watch that and go to bed.
“The Masters? That was a special treat.”
So as early Monday morning crept in, given the time difference between South Africa and Augusta, Els and his father, Neels, stayed up to watch the final round of the ’86 Masters.
“Nicklaus was definitely my guy,” said Els. “There was a group of players (I followed), but Nicklaus, he was the best in the game at that time. Him and obviously Gary Player, and Seve Ballesteros, I love the way he played, he was in the mix. Greg Norman is another guy I loved watching, and he was in the mix, too.
“I mean, if you look at that leaderboard, everybody that was anybody was on the leaderboard.”
Els felt a little sympathetic for his hero as Nicklaus made his way into the hunt. Like many, the 16-year-old Els was convinced Nicklaus was too old to win at 46.
“It kind of was like watching an old boxer like Muhammad Ali fighting Larry Holmes, and you hope he’s going to beat the guy, but you think he’s going to get the crap beat out of him,” Els said, smiling.
“That was kind of the same thing watching Nicklaus play the Masters going into the final nine. You’re thinking, I hope he wins, but I don’t think he’s going to do it.”
But Nicklaus, of course, came through with some of that old Jack magic, leaving Els with a memory for a lifetime.
“My dad and I, sitting there, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” he said. “That was exciting stuff. They can show that on The Golf Channel every day instead of all that other stuff they show.”
– Jeff Babineau
Clay Long: The putter maker’s response
There may never have been a golf club that got a bigger boost from one tournament than the Response ZT, the putter made famous by Jack Nicklaus during his 1986 Masters victory.
“Up until that point it was a novelty, a goofy putter,” says Clay Long, former head of research and development for MacGregor Golf and the designer of the oversized putter. “But it got serious real quick.”
MacGregor had forecasted selling 6,000 putters for the year. By the Masters, 20,000 had sold.
“It was already a success for us,” he says.
But the company never expected demand to skyrocket the way it did after Nicklaus’ final-round performance at Augusta. Golfers everywhere were supersizing their putters like an order of fries at a fast-food restaurant.
“We took 5,000 orders from 8 a.m. until noon on Monday,” Long remembers. “By the end of the year, we did 150,000. We couldn’t make them fast enough. The plant was full of putters.”
It turns out the putter had been a mistake.
Long designed a corrective putter face with an overhang just below the top line. The putter had to be tall enough so the ball didn’t hit the overhang with a forward press, so he scaled the profile up 33 percent. Thus its unconventional size. But the USGA ruled the overhang was nonconforming. Long, however, liked the putter’s performance so much that he made a few models without the overhang.
“It became a high-inertia putter instead,” he says.
Nicklaus first saw the putter at MacGregor’s sales meeting in July 1985. He had asked Long to make a putter similar to the Ping Pal that Tom Watson used – not the oversized contraption he was given.
“He said to me, ‘Is this a joke?’ Then he tried it out, he liked the way it rolled and asked me to send him a couple to try out,” Long says.
Nicklaus experimented with it at Loxahatchee Club in Jupiter, Fla., and shot a course record with it. He put the “MI 615” model (moment of inertia, weighing 615 grams) in his bag at the beginning of the 1986 season.
During Sunday’s final round, Long was home in Albany, Ga., working on his taxes with the tournament on TV in the background.
“And then I wasn’t doing my taxes anymore,” he recalls.
Long was too busy fielding calls from his former golf teammates from Ole Miss, who were wondering if that was his putter responsible for all the heroics they were watching. When Nicklaus made the putt on 17 and lifted the putter in the air, Long broke into celebration.
“I was running around, screaming, I was so hoarse the next day,” he says. “And I was praying, ‘Please don’t three-putt on the last hole.’ ”
Long says MacGregor sold approximately 350,000 Response ZT’s before the company stopped manufacturing the club. In development, they simply called it “the big putter.” Nicklaus used the putter through 1988 and an oversized model for the next 10 years.
Today, Long is an independent designer, although none of his available models are oversized. He also has remained connected to Nicklaus, providing design work for Nicklaus Golf since 2001. There’s even a 20th anniversary Response ZT putter coming to market. All because of Nicklaus’ putting prowess in the final round of the 1986 Masters.
“Forget (just) golf, that’s the greatest sporting event I’ve ever seen,” Long says, “and to have played a part in it is the highlight of my career.”
– Adam Schupak