Nicklaus' sixth green jacket was his best

Nicklaus' sixth green jacket was his best

Published Apr. 3, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

It will be remembered as the greatest Masters.

Twenty-five years ago this week, in the 50th edition of golf's rite of spring, Jack Nicklaus defied all the odds to win his sixth, and last, green jacket.

The triumph will live forever, but not just because the Golden Bear closed with six birdies and an eagle over the final 10 holes.

Numbers on a scorecard wasn't what reduced seasoned broadcasters Pat Summerall and Ken Venturi to tears on the afternoon of April 13, 1986.


It was the grander context, the magnitude of what it stood for, that spoke to us all.

Who among us can't relate to a man trying to recapture his spring in his autumn years?

Nicklaus arrived at Augusta National with long shadows stretching across a magnificent career.

He was 46, more than a decade removed from his last victory at the National, and competing in an era where, unlike now, technology offered no relief to professionals in their twilight.

“Forty-six doesn't resonate today as that bad, simply because of equipment,” he said recently. “But in those days, I was playing wood driver, playing a wound golf ball.

“You didn't reduce a golf course to nothing like you can today.”

In 1986, golf offered no fountain of youth; Jack might as well have been 60. He hadn't won a major in six years, or any tournament in two years.

It seemed to most, and maybe even to Nicklaus himself, that he no longer had it in him. The ravages of time and the distractions that come with running businesses and being the head of an expanding family took their toll.

He was 160th on the money list coming to the year's first major. He'd missed three cuts in seven starts and withdrew from a fourth tournament, and his best finish was a tie for 39th in Hawaii.

He was, in short, an Old Bear. And he knew it.

“I felt like my time was pretty much over, but I didn't really want to stop playing golf,” he recalled.

“But yet I didn't want to put in the work. I had other interests.”

Six years before, at the age of 40, Nicklaus had proved to himself that he could scale the mountain one last time.

He was playing awfully in 1979, decided to retool his swing, took time off to master the changes, then roared back to win two majors.

“I think when I won in 1980, I put so much effort in changing my swing in 1980 and the success that I had, I just sort of said, 'Gee, that was pretty neat.' And I just sort of rested on my laurels, you might say, or got lazy,” he admits.

“I didn't have a lot of goals at that point in my life as it relates to playing golf.

“I was doing other things. My kids were now at the age where they were playing high school sports and college sports.

“My business was not playing golf anymore. My business was (golf course) design business.

“Did I still like to play golf because I loved the game? Sure, absolutely.

“But I had been doing it for 20-some years and just sort of waned away.”

To this day Nicklaus doesn't know what was different about 1986.

Or if it was any one thing.

There was the fact that his oldest child, son Jackie, would be on his bag for the first time at a Masters. Befitting a Midwesterner from northern European stock, Jack's hardly sentimental, but he's a proud father, and having his son with him “meant a lot,” he said in an obvious understatement.

Then there was his mother, who'd been ill and hadn't attended a Masters since 1959 suddenly wanting to see her son play. His sister had never been to Augusta, but she decided that she wanted to go, too.

“The two of them, why would they pick 1986?” he asks himself today.

And then there was the infamous article by an Atlanta sportswriter who wrote off Nicklaus as yesterday's man, the Golden Bear in reputation only; an article that a friend had taped to the fridge door so that Jack could read his own obituary.

Maybe it was all of these things or just, as Seve Ballesteros would later say, his destiny.

Whatever the motivation, Nicklaus was inspired to see if he could do what few of us have done: show that the years cannot always weary us; that despite weathered brows and sagging skin, failing eyesight and the atrophy of those once-toned muscles, that it's the spirit that most matters.

Nicklaus said something in the weeks leading to that Masters that always has beguiled me.

“I think I found that fellow I used to know,” he told his wife, Barbara, after practicing one day.

He'd find him again somewhere amid those Georgia pines and dogwoods and blooming azaleas, and together they rolled in all those birdies and dropped that famous eagle on the 15th that had us all roaring.

I asked Jack a few weeks ago what it was like in middle age to find that strong, potent and uncompromising young man again.

He gave me the impression that that young champion had never really left.

“Somewhere out there as I went on with the round, particularly over the last nine or 10 holes, as I started making birdies, I remembered who I was,” he said.

“I remembered how I had competed, how I had strategized, how I had controlled myself.

“I just went back in time.

“I made sure all the things I used to know how to do, I did.

“And I didn't forget them as we went along.”

In the end, helped by the capitulation of Ballesteros and an implosion from Greg Norman and a missed putt from Tom Kite, Jack Nicklaus had won an 18th major.

But the 1986 Masters will always be about so much more than golf.