1986 Masters: Tom Kite was only a birdie away

Tom Kite drives during the 1986 Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.

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.”

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