It is difficult to believe that 30 years have elapsed since Jack Nicklaus won the last of his 18 Major titles at the 1986 Masters.
Indeed, it seems like yesterday when I witnessed a rejuvenated 46 year-old Nicklaus rolling back the years with a performance described with no hint of hyperbole by that great American golf writer, Herb Warren Wind, as “nothing less than the most important accomplishment in golf since Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam in 1930.”
That Sunday in April 1986 remains one of those rare occasions when I found myself in the right place at the right time, albeit purely accidentally.
Thirty years on, I can still recall waking that morning in my B&B a few hundred yards across International Drive from Augusta National and deciding on the spur of the moment to go and watch Sandy Lyle for a few holes before getting down to the real work of the day.
It proved to be an inspired decision because the Scot was playing with Nicklaus and it gave me a grandstand view of what remains arguably the greatest final afternoon in Masters history.
When Nicklaus arrived at Augusta that year he had not won a PGA Tour event in two years or a Major title in five. He was by his own admission “in the December of my career” and in the lead up to the tournament had even suffered the ignominy of being described as “washed up” by one local journalist.
Nicklaus silenced some of his critics by recovering from an opening 74 to card rounds of 71 and 69 that left him four shots behind 54-hole leader, Greg Norman, but a lacklustre start to his final round, in which he played his first eight holes in level par, saw him slip two shots further off the pace set by 1980 and ’83 champion Seve Ballesteros. Then something clicked and for one last time we were privileged to see the Nicklaus of old.
What is so memorable, three decades later, is not so much what Nicklaus did over the final ten holes, but how he achieved it.
Walking up the steep hill towards the ninth green I was contemplating heading back to the corrugated iron hut which at the time served as the media centre but then he holed a tricky downhill putt for a birdie and I decided to stick with him for a few more holes. It proved to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.
History shows Nicklaus played his final nine holes that afternoon in 30 shots to card a 65 and claim a single shot victory over Norman and Tom Kite but those bland statistics capture nothing of the drama the Golden Bear created as he sent the crowd into raptures.
After that birdie on the ninth, Nicklaus birdied the 10th and the 11th before dropping a shot at the treacherous short 12th hole. By the time he birdied the 13th and then eagled the 15th the noise was deafening and it was destined to go up a notch or two more when he birdied both the 16th and 17th as well.
“The ground felt like it was moving,” Golfweek writer, James Achenbach, said at the time. “It was a surreal experience. I half expected the trees to bow down in homage (to the great man).”
Nicklaus agreed. “There were only three other times that (the noise) compared,” he said. “The 1972 British Open at Muirfield where I lost to Trevino, the 1978 British Open when I won at St Andrews and the 1980 US Open I won at Baltusrol. It brought tears to my eyes.”
Nicklaus might have been emotional but he was not overawed by the occasion and he succeeded in parring the last before watching on as all his nearest rivals came up just short of matching his nine under par total of 279.
Cue bedlam as Nicklaus hugged his eldest son and caddie, Jack Jr, before embracing his mother, Helen, who was making her first visit to Augusta since her son had played there as an amateur back in 1959.
The next morning golf made one of its rare excursions onto the front pages of our newspapers and the switchboard at the Golden Bear’s club manufacturer, McGregor, was jammed by punters desperate to buy one of the big-headed putters Nicklaus had wielded with such effect. Its popularity did not last but memories of that Nicklaus performance have never dimmed, and no doubt never will.
Looking back now, what I witnessed first-hand that day was probably the most dramatic and unexpected finale ever seen at a Major championship, one that would only have been surpassed had Tom Watson completed an emotional victory at The Open at Turnberry 23 years later.
“I’m not as good as I was 10 or 15 years ago,” he admitted to the media after collecting a record sixth Green Jacket and becoming the tournament’s oldest winner. “I don’t play as much competitive golf as I used to but there are still some weeks when I’m as good as I ever was.
“I came here looking for the man I used to know on the golf course and I found him,” he added. “It was me.”
The man who some said was past it had proved he was anything but.
-9 Jack Nicklaus
-8 Tom Kite, Greg Norman
-7 Seve Ballesteros
-6 Nick Price