In the modern, televised era of golf, the list of shots that have come to define a legendary career is short. Tiger Woods’s wait-for-it, wait-for-it chip-in at the 16th hole of the 2005 Masters, leading to the most recent of his four victories at Augusta National, comes to mind. Tom Watson’s chip from gnarly rough along the 17th green at Pebble Beach, the shot that beat Jack Nicklaus in the 1982 U.S. Open, is right there. Maybe, in a perverse way, Greg Norman’s tee shot at Augusta National’s par-3 12th, the shot whose ripples in Rae’s Creek best symbolize Norman’s incomprehensible collapse in the 1996 Masters, when a six-shot lead somehow turned into a five-shot loss.
And then there is a putt, all of 11 feet, as subtle a double-breaker — a hair right, then a hair back left — as there is at Augusta National. When Nicklaus stood over that putt 25 years ago this week, he already had five green jackets to go along with a dozen other major championships. He was a thick-in-the-middle 46 when 46, somehow, seemed older for an athlete than it does now. His last major title had come six years earlier. His preparation included no finish better than 39th in seven tournaments that spring.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘Done, washed up, finished,’ ” Nicklaus said that Masters week of 1986. “I was trying to make myself mad, but it didn’t really work too well because I thought it might be true.”
“I believe I would speak for all of our guys,” said Verne Lundquist, the man entrusted with calling the action at the 17th for CBS Sports. “I don’t think anyone was prescient enough to see this coming.”
Nicklaus, of course, buried the putt, center-cut, to take sole possession of the lead on Sunday of the 1986 Masters. An afterthought two hours earlier — to the point which legendary CBS producer Frank Chirkinian argued that Nicklaus, as he made the turn, was not part of the story — he had authored a moment that not only helped him to the last of his 18 major championships, but gave CBS officials the perfect highlight to punctuate all those shots of azaleas as they build up hype for Augusta each spring. A career without parallel now had a bookend of one final, unforgettable image: Nicklaus following the putt in, raising his left arm and his putter — a combination golf club/vacuum cleaner attachment made by MacGregor — and Lundquist’s simple, powerful, “Yes SIR!” to indicate the enormity.
“I don’t care where I go,” Nicklaus said during a press conference and conference call with reporters earlier this year. “I always run into somebody and [they] say, ‘You know, I was in an airport in ’86,’ and he says, ‘I canceled my airplane and sat there and watched it because I couldn’t leave.’ ”
Lost in that 18 seconds of tape — the time between Lundquist uttering “this is for sole possession of the lead,” and the ball dropping into the cup — are the other characters there that day. Seve Ballesteros, the wildly electric Spaniard who led much of Sunday, only to snap-hook a shot into Rae’s Creek on the 15th, replacing a birdie opportunity with bogey in the midst of Nicklaus’s charge. Norman, enduring one of countless heartbreaks at Augusta, carrying the lead into the final round and arriving at the 18th tee needing birdie to win, just par to force a playoff with Nicklaus. He yanked his drive, and made bogey. Tom Kite, the Texan, collapsing to his knees on the 18th green as his putt to tie Nicklaus died.
But to get to those points, Nicklaus had to make himself matter. He was four back of Norman’s lead heading into Sunday, steady at 2 under par. This, in fact, was something of an accomplishment, given Nicklaus’s recent record coming into the event. Tom McCollister, a veteran sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, assessed Nicklaus’s chances thusly: “Nicklaus is gone, done. He just doesn’t have the game anymore. It’s rusted from lack of use. He’s 46, and nobody that old wins the Masters.’’
John Montgomery, an old Nicklaus friend who stayed with him Masters week, promptly put the newspaper clipping on the refrigerator in their rented house.
“He would sort of peek around the corner to find my reaction when I first saw it,” Nicklaus said. “That was all. Did that article do anything? No.”
It did, though, cast Nicklaus as an over-the-hill underdog, and he really didn’t completely alter that impression until he reached the ninth hole Sunday. As he stood over his birdie putt, he had to step away twice — once for the thunder that followed Ballesteros’s eagle at 8, again for the roar that followed Kite’s eagle at the same hole.
“Let’s see if we can’t make that same kind of noise here,” Nicklaus reportedly said to the gallery. He drained the putt, and the noise followed. Augusta, known for the most distinctive cheers in golf — that’s a birdie at 11, that’s an eagle at 15 — suddenly produced noises it never had before. Nicklaus birdied 10, then began Amen Corner by burying a 20-footer for his third straight birdie. He gave some of that back with a bogey at the infuriating little par-3 12th, but a birdie at 13 — and the roar that accompanied it — got him to 5 under, two behind Ballesteros, one behind Kite, tied with Norman and two others.
“I’ve never heard a golf environment — never, ever — like that,” Lundquist said.
The tournament changed for good at the par-5 15th, where Nicklaus hit 4-iron from 202 yards to 12 feet. His son, Jackie, caddied for him that day, and his leap into the air when the eagle putt fell was outdone only by the gallery, who rattled signals of what was happening all across the property. Another birdie at the par-3 16th, which Nicklaus seemed to own, pulled him within one.
“As a player, if you’re not winning, you finish the round — I don’t care where it is on Sunday – and you escape as quickly as possible,” said Curtis Strange, who began the day a stroke behind Nicklaus and played four groups ahead.
“Golfers don’t, really, you know, sort of swoon over what happened,” Nicklaus said. That Sunday, though? Players stayed, and they swooned.
“Riveted to the TV,” Strange said. “We didn’t leave. It was truly amazing.”
The last amazing pieces remained. Nicklaus punctuated his 30 on the back nine with that impossibly tricky little putt at 17 — the last of his six birdies and one eagle over the final 10 holes — with a harder-than-you-think two-putt for par from 40 feet at the 18th. He had to wait, then, for Norman and Kite and Ballesteros. None could match him.
“I don’t even know why I was playing golf then,” Nicklaus said.
Turns out, he played because he had at least 10 sensational holes left. And with one of them, on a day when he wasn’t supposed to step to the side and let the game’s best — Norman, Ballesteros and Kite — decide things, he provided the image that defines him still, a quarter century later.