Which was the better Masters: 1986 or 2019?

April 08, 2020
The Masters - Final Round

Kevin C. Cox

Golf is not so much our profession as it is our passion at Golf Digest, and often that passion translates to philosophical, analytical, ideological and, occasionally, idiotic workplace discussions about the game. During this time of pause in our sport (and in the world at large), we decided to take these office conversations online in hopes of providing a welcome distraction.

In the third installment of the "Great Golf Debates" senior editor E. Michael Johnson and senior writer Alex Myers tackle the pressing question: Which was the better Masters, 1986 or 2019?

E. Michael Johnson: Don’t worry, Alex, as President Reagan said in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” I mean, you were all of what, 5 or 6 years old when the 1986 Masters was played?

Alex Myers: I appreciate that, Mike, although, I was only 4 at the time so please stop spreading rumors that I might be 40.

EMJ: That said, let me start here: Although it might seem so at times in my defense of 1986, I’m not downplaying the significance of Tiger’s win at last year’s Masters one bit. It was historic. It was memorable. It was incredibly impressive. But it wasn’t 1986.

There are similarities to be sure. Two all-time greats later in their careers. Both coming from behind against a pretty dang strong group of frontrunners and challengers. Both benefiting from miscues from said opponents. Both coming up with good play when needed and producing the big birdie at the big moment. Except just like 1986 gave Jack six green jackets while Tiger’s win last year gave him five, Nicklaus had the better of almost all those things—and then some.

AM: I assure you that despite my “youth,” I have as much admiration for the 1986 Masters as possible for someone my age. Heck, it’s why I found myself (Shhhhh, don’t tell anyone) rooting against Tom Watson at the 2009 Open Championship. A Watson win at 59 would have blown Jack’s greatest victory out of the water! And then would we even be having this debate?

Anyway, “Yes sir!” on No. 17 gets all the attention from 1986, but for me, the best moment was Jack’s near-ace on No. 16. With the ball in the air, his son and caddie, Jackie, uttered, “Be right.” Jack, barely watching, responded, “It is.” It was. Perfect. OK, I’m helping your argument—not that you need help—too much now. Point is, I figured something like that could never be topped. Heck, most golf fans did. But we were wrong.

Jack may have been an old bear coming out of hibernation, but he was a healthy old bear. Thirty-three years later, Woods wasn’t just an old Tiger mired in a major drought, but a man who showed up at Augusta National with as many back surgeries on his record as green jackets. The man was a walking medical miracle!

Jack Nicklaus, 1986 Masters

John Iacono

EMJ: Fair enough as far as Tiger being a walking medical miracle. But he had already proven he was a highly functioning one. Here's how things looked coming into the Masters for each player. Jack had finishes of T-60, MC, T-39, MC, T-47, WD and MC, and hadn’t won since the 1984 Memorial—on a course he designed. Woods, who won the Tour Championship to finish up 2018, had five top-20 finishes in six starts, made the cut in all and made the quarterfinals in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in his last start before the Masters. Nicklaus was so bad Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Tom McCollister in a pre-tournament column (now famously) wrote, “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.” Tiger came in as a pseudo-favorite at 12-1 odds. I don’t even know why people were surprised (other than some guy who produced the viral hit, “Tiger’s Chances”). In fact, I picked Woods to win on the podcast before the tournament started. As Yogi Berra once said, you can look it up. (OK, I did it for you—here you go). The point being that while Woods’ win was one of redemption and glory recaptured, it lacked the utter shock and awe of the completely unexpected that came from Jack’s victory.

AM: Thanks for mentioning “Tiger’s Chances,” which earned me rave reviews from some guy at the Washington Post, my mom and, well that’s about it.

Although that clip could probably be entered as evidence and hurt my case. As could the fact I made a few bucks betting on Tiger to win. Damn, you’re good. Have you ever thought about going into law?

Anyway, I will concede that Woods was in much better form entering his triumph, but as you point out, Jack’s lack of success was more from a lack of play and not the fact he’d spent much of the past five years on the operating table. The Golden Bear’s greatness was still in there, just waiting to pounce. Like Watson at that 2009 Open. Besides, 46 isn’t even that old. Kenny Perry should have won at 48 in 2009! Heck, Jack contended in 1998 at 58! I realize that the narrative at the time was he was finished, but that clearly wasn’t the case.

EMJ: Actually, it was the case. That year’s Masters was an aberration. This was a guy winding it down. It wasn’t just his last PGA Tour win. After this Masters his best showing was a T-5 at the 1991 Doral-Ryder Open. Sure, 1998 was a fun ride, but we all know the old champs all get a last run (see Hogan, Ben in 1967, among others. This was an era when being camera ready for ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue wasn’t a thing. Players in their 40s winning majors wasn’t really a thing. This was Nicklaus, middle-aged paunch and all in those godawful Sansabelt slacks with the checkered pattern, hunched over on the greens, wielding that monstrous MacGregor Response ZT putter, making bombs on 10 and 11 and all the other important putts down the stretch.

As for being a lawyer, well, my mother always said I was impossible to argue with. But hey, when you’re going against Team Tiger you have to bring your A game. Oh, speaking of A game, I do believe Jack shot a final-round 65 with a 30 on the final nine, iron shots so crisp I could listen to them all day. Tiger last year? A solid, if uninspired 70. A lovely and pedestrian 35 on the final nine. Birdies at the two par 5s (which nine of the last 20 champions have done) were offset by bookend bogeys on 10 and 18. A final-round 65 using persimmon and balata it was not. Tiger’s birdie on 16 was electric, but it’s no match for Jack’s shot at 16 which, oh, just happened to come on the heels of an eagle at 15 and was followed by the “Yes, SIR!” putt on 17.

The Masters - Final Round

Andrew Redington

AM: Jack certainly provided more fireworks, I’ll give you that, but Woods executed every shot flawlessly from his approach on No. 11 to the finish, even including him playing the most conservative 18th hole ever for bogey. Most notably, Tiger stuck to his game plan on No. 12 with an ultra-safe shot to exactly where he aimed on the fat part of the green while both his playing partners, Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau, as well as Brooks Koepka up ahead, found Rae’s Creek.

It wasn’t the most dazzling display of golf, but it was tactical Tiger at his best. And the near-ace on 16 will wind up being shown almost as much as his magical chip-in on the same hole in 2005. Also, I know you’re an equipment guy, but let’s keep that out of this. We both know that without the equipment advances of the past 20 years that helped level the playing field, Woods probably would have authored even more runaway wins like he did at the 1997 Masters and the 2000 U.S. Open. Speaking of the field, this debate obviously isn’t just about the leading men, but the entire cast. And while I know you’re about to toss more historical names at me, the runner-up threesome of Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele will hold its own over time. Not to mention, less than an hour before Tiger’s winning tap-in there was a five-way tie for the lead. Now that’s electric.

EMJ: As I said at the outset, the difference here is small. But you’re throwing Xander Schauffele at me? I’ll go with Greg Norman, Tom Kite, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Price, Tom Watson—eventual Hall of Famers all. That said, kudos to you for a strong case. I’m inclined to agree with you about Tiger’s prowess. I consider him the best to ever play the game. But we’re debating the 1986 versus the 2019 Masters, and 1986, in my opinion, stands alone. Not by much, but by enough. It was a day that inspired some of the most iconic calls in golf history. Not just Verne at 17, but Ben Wright after the eagle at 15 with “The battle is joined! My goodness, there’s life in the old bear yet!” And how about a boyish Jim Nantz, in his first Masters, on the 16th hole saying, “If anyone has owned this hole, it’s Jack Nicklaus”—uttered right before Jack’s tee shot. Plus, you have to love seeing the old MacGregor, Spalding, Wilson, Hagen staff bags.

Like for Tiger last year, the fans were 15 deep in spots in 1986, but Jack gave them more “the-place-is-up-for-grabs” moments. He gave the little double fist pump at 15, the wry smile to Jackie at 16 and, of course, the arm-in-arm walk off with his son on 18. He won the 50th playing of the Masters. Venturi said as Nicklaus got to the 18th green it was “The most emotional and loudest ovation I’ve ever heard.” And then Jack damn-near made another bomb at the last. But I leave the final word to the great Dan Jenkins (you’re not about to argue with Dan are you, Alex?). Wrote Jenkins: “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.

AM: What a great line by Dan. And such memorable moments from the CBS team throughout the broadcast as well. Nantz’s closing call in 2019, though, was also pretty strong. “Many doubted we’d ever see it, but here it is: The return to glory!” Followed by a perfect 2½ minutes of silence. Well, not from the patrons, of course, as Woods made his way back to the clubhouse, stopping for several emotional hugs, including with his son—22 years after that famous embrace with his own father. When Faldo finally spoke, he said, “That will be the greatest scene in golf forever.” High praise from Sir Nick! And Nantz, who has seen some special things including what happened in 1986, called it, “the best event I’ve ever covered.” Who are we to argue with Jim Nantz?

No, but seriously, you have a strong case, and this is an argument no one can really lose. Both are tournaments that hit you right in the feels, and I can’t watch highlights of either without getting a bit misty-eyed. And while I may be showcasing my age and, yes, some recency bias, you also have an advantage with more than three decades of nostalgia built in. Let’s give the 2019 vintage the same amount of time to breath and then reconvene—God willing—to hash it out some more.