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Once in a generation or so, a sporting event is played that is remembered for years afterward. And then there are those that are recognized forever.
Sunday at the ’86 Masters was one of those days. Anyone that witnessed it will tell you that it was the most glorious televised sporting event they had ever seen.
On the final Sunday of the Masters Tournament in 1986, 46-year old Jack Nicklaus, already with five green jackets to his credit (1963, ’65, ’66, ’72, ’75), teed off for yet another attempt at golf’s most coveted major. Through the first nine holes, he was under par at -2, but there was no indication of what was to come as the day wore on. And there was no one on earth, not even Pop Keeler, that could have scripted a more electrifying close to the most celebrated Masters ever recorded.
The Start of Something Special
His run began with a birdie on the 9th hole that moved him to -3. It was still a spot on the leaderboard so far out of contention that those watching the tournament from their couches barely noticed anything was happening. Aside from Jack doing what Jack does. Sinking a great birdie here and there.
Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman were at center stage. The glare of the spotlight was blinding. They were battling at the top of the leaderboard at -8 with the next best score being Nick Price lingering at -5. Seve already with two previous green jackets to his resume (1980 & 1983). Greg Norman still pursuing his first. Both players could have swum in the tension and excitement that flooded the course that day.
The Back Nine Begins
But at the 9th hole, Ballesteros playing one hole behind Nicklaus, made a crucial bogey 5 to drop back to -7. And Jack, upon the monstrous 495-yard par four 10th hole, continued to roar forward with a swooping right to left putt up the hill igniting the enormous gallery.
Behind Ballesteros and Norman, the leaderboard would rearrange, shuffle and flip-flop between a handful of legendary contenders including Tom Kite, Nick Price, Jay Haas, and Bernhard Langer, with the Golden Bear lurking behind.
Then on 11, Nicklaus made another move with a right to left putt downhill. As if a string were attached to the ball, it rolled right into the hole making it three birdies in a row. Eleven years earlier, Jack had won his fifth green jacket. Now, at 46 and seemingly out of the tournament at the start of Sunday’s final round, something miraculous was brewing. There was a strange energy, and everyone watching could feel it.
Unforgettable athletes talk about going into the zone. Never could this be defined better than with Jack Nicklaus on that extraordinary 85 degree Sunday afternoon in Augusta, Georgia.
On the 11th hole, Tom Kite knocked in a birdie to move to within 1 of the lead at -6. At the time, he was called the best player to ever play at Augusta without a victory. And he was starting to feel momentum moving in his direction as well. Co-leader, Ballesteros, would make his par to remain at the top of the leaderboard.
On the 9th, Greg Norman pulled his drive into the pines and was forced to hit a near impossible shot onto the green. It had been a day of struggle for him, fighting with everything he had just to stay at even par. On the 10th, his tee shot would rattle off the trees and somehow land in the fairway, but it was more as if the golf Gods were teasing him then lending a hand. He would pull his second shot to the left of the green into the gallery, landing between a stump and a tree. It left him an awkward chip shot significantly hindering his swing.
Norman was in deep trouble and running thin on luck. It seemed as if he was on the verge of losing control of his round, and with it the tournament. But he maintained his composure. With his poker face, had he been in Vegas, he could have netted a cool million. But Norman would end up with a double bogey, the second time that week he would card that score on the 10th.
Now on the twelfth, Nicklaus was standing on the tee box, visualizing his shot into the 155-yard par 3. The pin was back right. Not a hint of wind could be felt on the notoriously unpredictable hole where vicious gusts of wind would famously roll out of the pines like rouge waves. To leave it short would mean devastation with the green sloping down into Rae’s Creek. Jack ripped a 6-iron but pulled it left. Visibly disgusted, he shook his head and discussed the upcoming 60+foot chip with his son and caddie, Jack.
A mediocre chip left Jack with a slippery 8-footer for par. The ball would slip past on the right edge of the hole, breaking Jack’s streak of stellar golf with a bogey four. The gritty 12th hole would steal another shot as it had done to so many sure-cleated golfers since the commencement of the tournament in 1934.
On 13, Nicklaus hits down the left side of the fairway to within 210 yards followed by a second shot to the middle of the green. He now had forty-five feet gently uphill for eagle. But it wouldn’t be an easy one contending with the myriad of shadows distorting the contour of the green. He hit a perfect lag putt to within a foot and left with a smooth birdie. Jack would follow up with a par at 14.
Ballesteros back on 13, rolls in an eagle to take sole control of the lead at -9. Tom Kite, his playing partner, stood at -7, Corey Pavin -6, Jay Haas -5 (his round complete), McCumber at -5 along with Nicklaus at -5.
Earlier in the clubhouse speaking with Brett Mussberger, Gary Player called Ballesteros the best player in the world at the time, picking him as the favorite to take home the green jacket. And after the 13th hole, it was looking as if Player was clairvoyant.
The Famous Charge
But the 15th hole would shake Ballesteros’ composure. It was a lapse in concentration for a mere moment that would inevitably change his round. A single shot on a single hole. Ballesteros took out his four-iron for a 199-yard second shot into the green. He pulled the shot into the pond, leaving his hopes for a third green jacket in limbo.
Earlier on 15, from 200 yards out, Nicklaus went for the green and stuck it to about ten feet giving him a putt for an eagle three. Fifteen might be the most exciting hole on the entire golf course. In a miraculous effort and to the roar of the gallery, Jack sinks the left to right putt. A “Yes sir!” by television broadcaster Verne Lundquist and a beautiful stroke propelled him up the leaderboard to -7.
Jack walked up to the 16th tee box. In 1963, it was on this hole that Jack would sink a birdie helping him to win his first green jacket. If ever a moment to dig into the past for positive reflection it was now. Nicklaus wastes no time and goes right at the flagstick. The ball lands just past the hole and spins back nearly going in for an ace. All that is left is a few feet for a birdie to go to -8. To a standing ovation, Jack Nicklaus approached the 16th green before he knocked in his birdie.
“And there is no doubt about it. The bear has come out of hibernation,” an analyst remarks. If ever destiny was living and breathing within someone, it was Jack Nicklaus as he calmly knocks in putt after putt, strolling up the leaderboard like he’s done so many times before.
On 17, Jack pulled his tee shot left but had a clear line to the green from 125 yards out. He landed his second shot to roughly fifteen feet from the hole for birdie.
On 15, Tom Kite made birdie to go to -8 sharing the lead with Nicklaus and Ballesteros. Seve’s time at the top of the leaderboard would end at fifteen, and he would not recover.
Back on 17, Nicklaus lined up and sank his putt for birdie to take sole possession of the lead at-9. He followed the birdie with a par on 18, which officially capped off a score of 30 on the back nine and one of the most extraordinary runs in major history.
But it was not over yet. Greg Norman would fight his way back to the top of the leaderboard sharing the lead with Jack Nicklaus at -9. With Jack in the clubhouse, it was Norman’s tournament to win or lose. A birdie would win it, and a par would send the tournament into a playoff.
Greg Norman’s tee shot was perfect. All he needed was an excellent second shot into the green. But as fate would have it, he would push it right thirty rows deep into the gallery. A failed chip shot later, and Jack Nicklaus would be crowned the victor and awarded his sixth and final green jacket. It is a record that still stands today. And a Masters so magical that it might never be matched.