A Father-Son Moment
Twenty-five years after an epic victory, Jack and Jackie Nicklaus put the '86 Masters on rewind
"Hey, who is that guy?" asks Jackie Nicklaus, pointing to the TV and the image of a middle-age golfer in a yellow shirt holing a curling 22-foot putt for birdie on the 11th hole at Augusta National.
Jackie gives his dad, who is plopped on the living-room sofa next to him, a playful nudge with an elbow. Jack Nicklaus doesn't budge. He is watching the big screen, rapt. The Nicklaus men have a rare weekday afternoon to kill, and they're viewing, for the first time together, the complete CBS Sunday broadcast of the back nine of the 1986 Masters, which in April becomes 25 years distant.
For two sports junkies, this is as good as it gets. Snacks are scattered about Jack's comfortable North Palm Beach home. Barbara Nicklaus is wandering in and out, asking the guys periodically if they need anything. The family dog, Bunker, a chocolate Labradoodle, is slumbering nearby, head on his paws. A few friends are over and are quiet, eager to hear what the video can pry loose from Jack's considerable memory.
"Stop the tape," Jack says. "I just noticed something." What follows is a litany of recollections and insights on probably the best nine holes of major-championship golf ever played, which ended with Nicklaus winning a record sixth Masters and the last of his 18 major championships as a professional.
Jack has recounted the essentials of the back nine before -- the famous eagle at No. 15, the near hole-in-one on No. 16, the killer birdie at No. 17, the embrace with Jackie, then 24, as they strode off the 18th green. But Jack, always a good interview, has tended to talk about that Masters in a clinical, matter-of-fact way that emphasizes the method more than the magic. Posterity begs a fuller remembrance, because an entire generation wasn't yet born when Nicklaus won that Masters. The generation before is acquainted in only a highlight-reel kind of way: Tiger Woods, for example, was 10 years old. As for the generation before that, well, time erodes recollections of everything.
After a friend hits "pause" on the remote, Jack nods toward the screen. "See the yellow shirt? Many years ago, the 13-year-old son of Barbara's church minister died of cancer. The boy's name was Craig Smith, and before he passed away he told me he loved watching me play on Sundays, and how he liked it when I wore a yellow shirt because it always seemed to bring me luck. I remember Barbara telling me to wear yellow that Sunday morning, that it would bring me good luck because of Craig."
The tape resumes for only a few seconds before Jack asks that it be paused again.
"See how narrow my stance is on that putt at 11? Through the years, I usually placed my feet about 10 inches apart.
That week, I began placing my feet much closer together, very narrow. It helped me swing the putter more freely, move the handle better."
Nicklaus was 46 when he came to Augusta that year. He hadn't won a major in six years or a tournament of any kind in two. He had missed three cuts earlier that year. "I was between things in my life," he says. "Senior golf was still pretty new and was down the road. My business was fine, but it didn't take up all my time. I'd play some golf, 12 to 14 tournaments a year, not enough to keep me sharp, but enough to be somewhat competitive. I was neither fish nor fowl. I wasn't really a golfer."
He opened that Masters with rounds of 74, 71 and 69, hitting the ball well but not making putts with his Response ZT, which had an enormous head and looked out of character in the hands of Nicklaus, a traditionalist. When the final round began he was tied for ninth, four shots out of the lead and barely lurking. He was even for the round after eight holes, the number of players ahead of him surging to a dozen. But after Jack birdied Nos. 9, 10 and 11, he suddenly was only two strokes behind the leader, Seve Ballesteros. Greg Norman was one of the men still leading Nicklaus. So were Tom Watson, Tom Kite and Nick Price.
The tape is running again, and Nicklaus is approaching the tee at the par-3 12th. "Here I'm thanking the people, who always were so fantastic there," Jack says.
The applause is sustained, and a friend points out an observation Jack once made about his getting emotional midway through the back nine, and how it threatened to distract him. Jack always said the tears began surfacing somewhere around the 15th hole, and he repeats it now. But Jackie corrects his father, softly. "Actually I saw it as you walked up to the tee on 12," he says. "You had to collect yourself there, Dad."
"Well, it wasn't the first tournament where I became emotional," Jack says. "The first time I had a gallery that made me cry was on the 11th hole at Muirfield at the British Open in 1972. I had won the first two legs of the Grand Slam, and on the last day I shot 32 going out. After birdieing the 10th, I hit an approach shot stiff at the 11th. As I walked up the fariway, the gallery exploded. The next thing I know, I've got tears streaming down my face. It wasn't for Jack Nicklaus the golfer, it was for me. That's what was so nice about it."
Now Jack is seen staring at the 12th green at Augusta, pensive, hands on his hips.
"I turn around from that applause, and now I'm facing the 12th hole at Augusta National. You can see a look of concern on my face. I'm concerned about what I have to do, the shot I have to play, my strategy. I've put myself back in the tournament; now what am I going to do that's not stupid? I can't go right, and I don't want to be in the back bunker. I need to calm my nervousness, because I've just made three birdies. All I want to do is put the ball in play."
Jack pulled the ball long and left at the 12th and made a bogey, a spike mark deflecting a six-foot putt. He fell three shots behind. The Nicklaus' close friends, Pandel and Janice Savic, thought Jack was out of the tournament and left for the airport. "That bogey was probably the best thing that happened to me during that round," he says. "I didn't feel good about it at the time; in fact I felt terrible about it. But it was a wake-up call, a kick in the rear end.
"If I had parred 12, I might have played a more conservative tee shot on 13 and ended up hitting my second in the water," he says. "You just never know. As it was, I took a 3-wood and turned my ball around the corner on 13 and set myself up for a birdie that kept the round going."
As the Nicklauses walk up the 13th fairway toward the tee shot, they chat freely. As Jackie points out, they had a history as player and caddie.
"I'd caddied for my dad many times before," Jackie says. "The first time was at the 1976 British Open at Birkdale [Jackie was 14 at the time], when Dad's regular caddie, Jimmy Dickinson, tore an Achilles tendon during a practice round. I stepped in and picked up his bag. Dad tied for second that year. I caddied for him quite a few times after that."
Jack points out that Jackie wasn't the only son to caddie for his father. Steve Nicklaus was the first to be on Jack's bag when he won, at Colonial in 1982. Gary caddied at the International at Castle Pines, where on the ninth hole one year, he got a nose bleed because of the altitude. Jack's daughter, Nan, didn't caddie, but she traveled with her father to more than one British Open, a daddy-daughter excursion of the highest order.
A joke is made about the sparkling-white caddie uniform Jackie is wearing. "Yeah, it made me feel like a Good Humor man," he says. "It looked funny, it was hot, and the pollen from the trees would cling to it. I had allergies, and when I'd bring my arm up to scratch my nose or to cough, the uniform made it worse."
"It wasn't the worst year for pollen, though," Jack interjects. "There were years where you were just covered with it. My contacts, some years I couldn't understand why my eyes hurt so badly."
Nicklaus reached the par-5 13th in two easily, and a two-putt birdie brought him back to within two of the lead. He parred the 14th, but Ballesteros eagled the 13th -- his second eagle of the day -- to take a two-stroke lead over Kite, with Nicklaus four behind.
A brief interlude involving Ballesteros and his caddie and brother, Vicente, gets Jack's attention. After Seve hits his second shot on No. 13 to eight feet, Ballesteros, grinning broadly, shakes hands with Vicente, then doffs his visor.
"It's like Seve was saying, This is my tournament, guys. All I need to do is finish it," Jack says. "Little did he know. Me, I wasn't thinking about what Seve was doing. I had my own problems. When was the last time I could control what somebody else did, other than through intimidation?"