AUGUSTA, Ga. – My introduction to the Masters as a sportswriter came in 1986, my second year at the Inquirer, when I was at Augusta National to watch Jack Nicklaus storm through the dogwoods to capture the green jacket for the sixth time.
The memories of that Sunday still give me goose bumps, so it was great to see Nicklaus enter the interview room on Tuesday to recall various moments from that historic weekend 25 years ago.
And make no mistake: Nicklaus’ recall of 1986, or just about any year actually, is vivid. Now 71, he still can remember occasions and key putts (“it was about 12-13 feet”) with incredible clarity.
So you sit there, and you listen to him talk about the final round of 1986, particularly his play on the last two holes.
Standing on the 17th tee, Nicklaus said he heard “a cheer and a groan” when Seve Ballesteros splashed his tee ball on 16 into the water. He then hit his drive on the left side of the fairway and “I left myself with 112 yards, I think, and I hit a pitching wedge which I knew I couldn’t hit over the green.
“That left me about 12 feet and, of course, when I made the putt, I realized that I was probably in the lead. I didn’t know exactly if I was, but I probably was in the lead.”
Nicklaus said he made the short walk to 18 tee with a goal of “not to worry about anybody else, because they were going to chase me now.”
Nicklaus hit a 3-wood off the tee, and a 5-iron for his approach from 175 yards out.
“Just as I hit it, a little breath of wind hit me in the face,” he said, “and I knew exactly where it was going to go … halfway up the slope (of the green) and back down. Fortunately, I practiced that putt quite a bit prior to the tournament because we (his golf course design company) redid the ninth green the previous year, took it down from about 11 percent pitch to 8 percent pitch, keeping everything else the same.”
Nicklaus two-putted for par, then retreated to the Jones Cabin on the club grounds to watch the other players finish. He was most worried about Greg Norman, who was making a charge of his own, and had tied Nicklaus after a birdie at 17.
“I’m sitting in Jones Cabin watching that,” he said. “He makes a birdie. I was sitting there for a while and he makes another birdie. And I said, ‘I’m not going to do very well sitting here.’ So I started getting up and walking around the room, pacing behind the couch, and he kept making birdies. So that didn’t do any good because I couldn’t control what he was doing.”
But Norman blew his chance by knocking his second shot on 18 way to the right and made bogey. Tom Kite missed a birdie putt at 18, and Nicklaus was the winner, with Norman and Kite on stroke back.
“It was a long time ago and it was an exciting week for me,” he said. “It was fun having (son) Jackie on the bag. It was fun having my mother and sister here who had not been here since 1959.
“Even more fun was that I holed a few putts on the back nine which made it possible that we could sit here and talk about it.”
Interestingly, regarding the famous birdie putt on No. 17 that day, Nicklaus said he “has putted that putt 100 times since” during practice rounds. He said the original putt broke right and then straightened out on its way to the hole.
“The next year, we were in a practice round and somebody asked, ‘Where did you hit that putt from?’” he said. “So I tried to find the spot and hit it and broke right. It was around there somewhere so every time I get back on that green, I get asked that question. So I go over to hit that putt and it keeps breaking right and it never comes back.”
Nicklaus and four-time champion Arnold Palmer will officially open the Masters Thursday morning, with each hitting a ceremonial tee shot off No. 1.