Speaking of Miracles
Twenty years ago, Jack Nicklaus' final-round 65 at age 46 won the most dramatic Masters ever played
When the leaders churn into Amen Corner this Masters Sunday, there is always the chance the ensuing hours will leave us limp and exhausted in our easy chairs, the nerves shot. There even exists the possibility that the back nine will produce a drama that surpasses all others. At the Masters, you never know.
The problem with that fantasy is the 1986 tournament, which so far has left other contenders for "most memorable Masters" fighting for second place. On a warm, windless Sunday two decades ago, Jack Nicklaus charged to a record sixth Masters in the most brilliant closing performance of his career. For two riveting hours, the sum of Nicklaus' genius poured forth without subtlety or letup in an all-at-once display of the qualities that made him the best golfer of all time.
The 1986 Masters was already one worth remembering, but then Nicklaus waded into a sea of Hall of Fame contenders and got the best of them all.
Twenty years later, the images and sensations of that day are so fresh that some of the people involved come out of their chairs as they describe them. Others struggle to find the words, as though the events still haven't sunk in.
Nicklaus arrived at Augusta that week in a deep slump, having missed the cut in three of seven tournaments that year. He had withdrawn from a fourth. He stood 160th on the PGA Tour money list. He hadn't won a tournament in two years, and his last major was six years distant. At age 46 and with 19 major championships, he seemed just another long-shot contender.
We begin the story with the Nicklaus family arriving at Augusta.
Marilyn Hutchinson, Jack's sister: For years the Masters was mainly a trip for the guys. Our family had gone down to Augusta in 1959 -- Jack's first Masters -- in a car without air conditioning. The house we stayed in didn't have air conditioning, either.
We sang much of the way, songs like "Blue Skies," "Tennessee Waltz" and "I Married an Angel." We made a lot of car trips when we were young, and that's how we'd pass the time.
Dad and Jack's friends Pandel Savic and John Montgomery were regulars, and sometimes there were others. When Dad passed away in 1970, we girls still weren't inclined to go. But by 1986 Mom was feeling her mortality. She'd had a heart bypass, which was a bigger deal then. One day in 1985 she said, "I'd like to go to the Masters one more time." So we all went.
Barbara Nicklaus, Jack's wife: There were too many of us to fit in one house, so we gathered at the main house for dinner. The house had a piano, and after dinner we sang. Did Marilyn tell you we love to sing? I played songs I knew, but also off some sheet music the owners had. There were a lot of church hymns. Jack's mother liked singing those songs. She knew all the words.
John Montgomery, family friend: In 1986, my son was over in Atlanta and read an article by Tom McCollister [of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution] saying Jack was washed up. I arranged to have it sent over, and when it landed I put it on the door of the refrigerator. Jack is a refrigerator freak -- he's there constantly out of habit, looking more than eating. When he saw the story he said, "I don't need to guess who put this here."
See, I'd always played practical jokes on Jack. I had several tons of horse manure dumped in his front yard once, another time filled it full of chickens. That article, he had to see it at least 20 times that week. I don't know to what degree it motivated him, but he never took it down.
McCollister, who died in an automobile accident in 1999, shared his memories years after Nicklaus' victory: "Like a lot of people, I decided to do a chart and put a comment on each one of them, what their chances were. I got to Jack, and I just thought he hadn't played well all that year, or the year before. So I just wrote that he's done. It was just a big paragraph, really."
Jack Nicklaus: You know, I can't remember much about that article. These days my memory is very good about things I think were important, and not very good about incidental things. I mean, reading an article isn't going to help you hit the shots.
Nicklaus' indifferent play was not the chief subject of talk about him early that week. Rumors also swirled that his businesses were in trouble and that he was in deep financial difficulty.
Rick Reilly, Sports Illustrated: We got a tip that Jack's businesses were a mess and that he was broke, so my first job that week was to ask Jack about that. I was 28, already had an ulcer, and now this. I saw Jack in the clubhouse on Wednesday and very nervously asked him if the rumors were true. He said, "Come on, let's go up to the Champions Locker Room and talk." And he gave me an hour. He was fantastic. It turned out he was only overextended.
Jack Nicklaus: Some things had happened in business that had put me in a horrible financial mess. Cost me a lot of money. But that's part of life; it happens. It was a distraction, but not to the extent some people imagined it was.
By 1986 I was not the player I was 15 years earlier. And I've always felt the Masters was a young man's tournament because of the speed of the greens, the firmness of the course and the demands it puts on your nerves. There are so many fine little shots you have to play there. If your game isn't right going into Augusta, it sure as heck isn't the place to find it. Still, there wasn't much rough, so I didn't need the strength to get the ball out of there. I might have been 46, but my nerves were still good. And I did not want to leave the game playing poorly.
The 1986 Masters began routinely. On Wednesday, Gary Koch won the Par-3 Contest, in which Gary Player made a hole-in-one. Arnold Palmer, 56, pronounced he was there to win. On Thursday, the first-round lead was shared by Bill Kratzert and the iconoclastic Ken Green, whose sister Shelley was on the bag to see her brother hole putts from everywhere for a 68.
Ken Green: That was my first round of my first Masters, and though they don't keep these kind of records, I'd bet it was the greatest putting round in the history of the tournament. I made putts of 35, 40, 50 and 70 feet, and a bunch of 10- and 15-footers for par. I was playing terribly but kept making these monster bombs. The next day I hit the ball about the same, but nothing fell. I holed a bunker shot to shoot 78 and make the cut with not a lot of room to spare. Can you imagine having the first-round lead and then missing the cut?
Nicklaus also had a family member caddieing for him, his 24-year-old son Jackie, the reigning North and South Amateur champion.
Jack Nicklaus II: I'd caddied for my dad many times before. The first time was at the 1976 British Open at Birkdale, when Dad's regular caddie tore an Achilles' tendon during a practice round. I stepped in and picked up his bag, and he hit an approach shot to the green. I started following, and he stopped me. "If you're going to caddie, you have to do the whole thing."
I'd forgotten to replace his divot. What did I know? I was 14 years old. Dad tied for second that year. I caddied for him quite a few times after that.
Jack Nicklaus: I like someone on the bag I can talk to. Jackie was a good player, and he also knew my game. Most of all, he knew me. He knew what to say and when to say it. He gave me a good opinion on the greens and other things, but it was just an opinion. I've always made my own decisions on the golf course.
Jack Nicklaus II: The one downside to caddieing at Augusta is the white caddie uniforms. They made me feel like a Good Humor Man. They looked funny, they were hot, and the pollen from the trees would cling to them. I had allergies, and when I'd bring my arm up to scratch my nose or to cough, the uniforms made it worse.