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Dan Jenkins: The Greatest Masters

At 46, Jack Nicklaus Turns Back the Clock and a League of Nations to Win His 20th Major

Jack walks to the 18th green Sunday afternoon on his way to victory.

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June 1986

If you want to put golf back on the front pages again and you don't have a Bobby Jones or a Francis Ouimet handy, here's what you do: You send an aging Jack Nicklaus out in the last round of the Masters and let him kill more foreigners than a general named Eisenhower.

On that final afternoon of the Masters Tournament, Nicklaus' deeds were so unexpectedly heroic, dramatic and historic, the taking of his sixth green jacket would certainly rank as the biggest golf story since Jones' Grand Slam of 1930. That Sunday night, writers from all corners of the globe were last seen sitting limply at their machines, muttering, "It's too big for me."

What indeed could be said? That it was one for the ages? That Jack Nicklaus saved golf from the nobodies who populate the PGA Tour these days? That surely this was Jack's finest hour, this 20th major? As much was said back in 1980 when he surprisingly won the U.S. Open and PGA. But here he comes again, six years later, now a creaking 46, hopelessly trailing a group of younger stars, most of them glamorous foreigners like Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Bernhard Langer, Tommy Nakajima, Nick Price and Sandy Lyle and what he does is suddenly catch fire over the last 10 holes of the tournament, shoot a seven-under 65 (with two bogeys), knock all of the invaders into a killer funk and win a sixth Masters by filling the Augusta National's pine-shadowed corridors with roars unlike any before them.

And he does it at a time when it looked like you needed a visa to get on the leader board. He had to beat a league of nations.

This history book, please. Now that it's over and Jack has hugged his son, the caddie, and survived the cordon of policemen who hadn't surrounded a golfer in such numbers since Jones completed the Slam at Merion 56 years ago, or since Ouimet upset Vardon and Ray 73 years ago, what does it mean?

When he won his fourth U.S. Open at Baltusrol in 1980, it tied him with Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones and Willie Anderson. When he won his fifth PGA at Oak Hill in 1980, it tied him with Walter Hagen. Now look, Nicklaus' sixth Masters victory gives him a tie with none other than Harry Vardon in an odd category. Vardon had been the only professional to win a specific major six times, having taken his half-dozenth British Open at Prestwick back in 1914.

In the case of Nicklaus, it wasn't so much that he did it but how he did it. With 10 holes left in the final round, Jack was six shots off the pace being set by Seve Ballesteros, who simply looked as if he owned the tournament, and had been looking like the owner all week long. But let it be recorded that Jack played those last 10 holes in 33 strokes--with a birdie at the ninth, a birdie at the 10th, a birdie at the 11th, a bogey at the 12th, a birdie at the 13th, a par at the 14th, an eagle at the 15th, a birdie at the 16th, a birdie at the 17th and a par at the 18th. Poor Jack. The guy almost didn't know how to make a par.

To be serious, it was a miraculous stretch of holes that tore the foreigners apart. None among them had a reason to take Nicklaus seriously until Jack hit the most gorgeous 4-iron you ever saw to the water-guarded 15th and then rammed home a 12-foot putt for an eagle 3. That got their attention, and then when Jack put every pore of knowledge into a 5-iron and damned near aced the par-3 16th, it frankly scored a knockout over Ballesteros.

There stood Seve, back in the 15th fairway with a one-shot lead on the field. Here was a man who had already made two eagles in the round, one at the eighth with a 50-yard pitch and another at the 13th with a two-yard putt. Until this moment, Seve had looked indestructible. But the repetitious punches of Nicklaus finally got to the Spaniard, and he did the only thing he could have done to lose the tournament he wanted so badly to win. He jerked the worst-looking 4-iron shot imaginable into the pond with a one-handed finish and took a bogey that bruised his confidence beyond repair. Make no mistake: Jack knocked the club out of his hand.

Perhaps the next most amazing shot Nicklaus hit came then at the 17th, after his pulled drive left him on hardpan, 125 yards from the green. A shot like that is supposed to spin, but Jack just fluttered it up, hop, hop, and he had a 10-foot birdie putt that destiny would allow him to rap into the throat of the cup. Finally, he played to a masterful par at the closing hole for his winning total of 279.

Nicklaus has rarely won his stockpile of majors watching television--until this one. In the Jones cottage near the Augusta National clubhouse, Jack watched the failures of Tom Kite and Greg Norman.

Of these, Norman's was the most necessary, and perhaps the most deserving, given the fact that the way Greg struck the ball on Sunday, his 70 could well have been an 80. He bounced off of everything but a nearby shopping center, and kept getting saved by the crowds, whose numbers prevented his ball from finding even worse places to come to rest, or, in fact, be lost. It was Nicklaus' presence on the scoreboard that ultimately did in the Australian at the 18th hole when Greg needed a par to tie, just as it was Jack's presence on the course that had done in Seve and others. What do you do if you're Greg Norman in the 18th fairway of the Masters on Sunday and you're trying to get Jack Nicklaus into a playoff? You hit a half-shank, push-fade, semi-slice 4-iron that guarantees the proper result for the history books. When you stop to think about it, Norman probably didn't want to play the 10th hole again in sudden-death; he already had double-bogeyed it twice that week, once four-putting. Oh well, Greg Norman always has looked like the guy you send out to kill James Bond, not Jack Nicklaus.

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