25 years later, Nicklaus' victory still magical

Jack Nicklaus watches his putt drop for a birdie on the 17th hole at Augusta National on April 13, 1986 in Augusta, Ga. The shot gave him the lead and he went on to win his sixth Masters title.

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Editor's note: This the opening piece to a series of vignettes reflecting on Jack Nicklaus' thrilling win at the 1986 Masters. We will release four vignettes each day between now and the first round on Thursday.

Twenty five years have passed, and still, Jack Nicklaus’ epic charge that rumbled through the tallest pines at Augusta National and turned the 1986 Masters – and the golf universe – upside-down echo through the Georgia air.

“Just another year from a great year from me,” Nicklaus said recently as he agreed to take a stroll down the path of that magical week. “But still very nice.”

Very nice. As in, historically nice. As in, the greatest Sunday ever in golf history, the very best theater, inside the most historical golf cathedral this country knows, with a cast that would later line up shoulder-to-shoulder next to the Golden Bear in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Seve Ballesteros. Tom Kite. Greg Norman. Nick Price. Tom Watson. All were there, somewhere ahead of him on the leaderboard to begin that day.

And, of course, the greatest of them all, Jack William Nicklaus, was there, too, somehow managing to keep his face in the tiniest corner of the snapshot. He’d arrived at Augusta that spring overly rusty, as one might expect a part-time 46-year-old golfer and full-time father of five might be. He’d shot 80 and missed the cut at his beloved Pebble Beach, missed the cut near home at the Honda, and in his most recent start, had missed the cut at the Players. Sprinkled in among those disappointing results were a handful of pedestrian finishes more befitting some struggling journeyman, none better than a tie for 39th. He stood 160th on the PGA Tour money list.

Obviously, with five green jackets in the closet, and nearly six years removed from winning his last major, he’d seen his day at the storied Masters.

But when he pulled his car down Magnolia Lane, Nicklaus was, well, different. Always. And that week in particular would feature some strange happenings that to this day Nicklaus cannot explain. Tom McCollister of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had written early in the week that, sadly, no longer was Nicklaus a factor at Augusta. Jack’s good friend, John Montgomery, who forever was playing pranks on his buddy and was staying with him in his rented house that week, made sure to clip out the article and tape it to the refrigerator for Jack to see.

Helen Nicklaus, Jack’s mother, also was there to see Jack play. That may not seem so strange, as Augusta often serves as an annual gathering place for many players' families. But Helen Nicklaus had attended her last Masters in 1959 – Jack’s first year at Augusta. And Jack’s sister attended that year as well. She’d never been before. They picked a good year to make the journey, as they’d be in for a show that people still recall fondly to this day.

Nicklaus began the final day at 2-under 214, tied for ninth place, four behind Norman, playing with Sandy Lyle well in front of the leaders. Even when he made birdie on No. 9 to turn at 1 under, he’d done little to raise any eyebrows. That would change very quickly. He birdied 10, and bombed a drive down 11 to set up an easy 8-iron to the green at the 455-yard hole. Birdie. He fell back with a bogey at the short 12th, but that only got his blood pumping faster. He picked up a birdie at the par-5 13th, made par at 14. The old man still was in the mix.

Nick Price played in the final group on that Sunday, alongside Norman. When they got to the 13th tee, Price looked down the right side of the fairway, which usually is lined with patrons about eight deep. He was shocked to see only a smattering of about 30 fans.

“It looked like a Monday practice round,” he said. “In fact, there’s more people on a Monday.”

An eagle from left of the hole location at the par-5 15th, a 5-iron to tap-in range at 16, and suddenly, shockingly, magically, even after an errant drive way left at 17, Nicklaus had recovered and was standing over a 10-foot birdie putt to take the lead. Did anyone really think he’d miss the putt?

Anyone who ever has been to Augusta knows there are many local rules for patrons to observe, one of the first and foremost being this: No running. That day, it looked as if the Boston Marathon had broken out on the nursery off Washington Road.

“Well, people were running everywhere,” said Price, who was walking alongside Norman down 15 when they saw the top of Nicklaus’ putter reach toward the sky on his fateful birdie putt at 17, eliciting the loudest roar he’s ever heard at a golf tournament.

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

It was. Magical. A closing par at 18, and soon after, Germany's Bernhard Langer, the 1985 Masters champion, was slipping a sixth jacket over Nicklaus’ broad shoulders. He'd shot 6-under 30 on the back nine, 65 for the day. The 50th playing of the Masters would be, yes, quite golden indeed.

People remember that day vividly, recalling exactly where they were as everyday life came to a standstill and Nicklaus invited all to jump inside his time capsule. Lee Trevino mused that he cannot begin to fathom how many flights were missed that day by people refusing to leave the gripping theater.

"Hold the plane, hold the plane," Trevino remembers pleading, as he'd played early that morning and was finished when Nicklaus was teeing off. "We are screaming at this guy to hold the plane. Everybody is watching. The airport is going nuts. My wife and I are there (in the airport lounge) and I'm hitting it hard. Come on, Jack!"

As for Nicklaus, he’s 71 now. He was asked recently if he still could recall the smaller details of that Sunday. Such as, oh, for instance, did he recall the club he hit into 17?

This was stepping into a Bear trap.

“Pitching wedge, 110 yards,” Jack shot back. “I don’t remember what I hit at 9, but I remember the putt, certainly. . . . I hit a 7-iron into 12 and played 3-iron into 13. I think I played 7-iron into 14. I hit a 4-iron on 15. I hit a 5-iron at 16. I hit pitching wedge at 17 and I hit 5-iron into 18.

“But outside of that, I can’t remember.”

He delivered his last line with a trademark wink. Sure he remembers. We all do. It was a day our game never will forget.

Thanks for that, Jack.

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