Celebrate Jack Nicklaus' greatest win in every last, glorious drop
Nobody gave 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus a chance when the 1986 Masters came around, few got excited when he teed off on Sunday four with the likes of Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Nick Price, Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman ahead of him.
In his seven starts on the PGA Tour in 1986 he missed the cut in three of them, withdrew in another, and his best finish was a tie for 39th in Hawaii.
He drove out of Magnolia Lane at the end of the week with a preposterous sixth jacket thanks to a 65, one of the greatest closing rounds in major history, and a mammoth MacGregor Response ZT 615 putter.
To celebrate his 80th birthday, here are 80 quotes from Nicklaus talking us through that momentous win…
1. Going into the tournament I had no expectations about winning, at all. I love playing golf. I wanted to stay part of the Tour. I really loved playing golf.
2. When January rolled around I started thinking about the Masters, I started practising for the Masters and getting ready for it and pick my tournaments and everything else based on getting to Augusta.
3. I did the same thing in 1986 but I thought about it in January, thought about it in February, thought about it in March and I started preparing about a week before the tournament. I didn’t do the things I used to do.
4. I was between things in my life. 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.
5. I really sort of finished my career, basically, in 1980, and I wasn’t playing so I could be ready for seniors golf. I just happened to like to play golf and I wanted to be part of it and play a few other things. I was doing a lot more course design and watching my kids play football, basketball or baseball or golf or whatever it might be. And I was frankly enjoying my life.
6. 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.
7. I wouldn’t wear a shirt at Augusta that you couldn’t wear with the Green Jacket.
8. Several things about that Masters were unique. My mother had not been to the Masters since my first one in 1959, and she’d said, “I want to go to the Masters one more time.” So she was there, and so was my sister, Marilyn, who had never been to the Masters. Other family members were there, and a bunch of my friends.
9. I read in the Atlanta paper that 46-year-olds don’t win Masters. I kind of agreed. I got to thinking. Hmmm. Done, through, washed up. And I sizzled for a while. But I said to myself, I’m not going to quit now, playing the way I’m playing. I’ve played too well, too long to let a shorter period of bad golf be my last.
10. I was down to 170 pounds and I realised I couldn’t play golf at 170. I was back at 190 that week.
11. If I could just putt. I might just scare somebody. Maybe me. I was ready to can that putter. But then I started making putts with it, and I got one that was a little bit heavier, and actually it was quite a nice putter.
12. 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.
13. Steve [Nicklaus] called me on Sunday morning. He said, “What do you think, Pops?” I said, “I think 66 will tie and 65 will win.” He said that’s the exact number he had in mind. Go shoot it.
14. I didn’t feel like I could get anything going until the 9th hole. And then we had that rigmarole with Seve Ballesteros and Tom Kite making eagles at 8. And I turn to the crowd. I’ve backed off the ball twice because of the shots, so I ask the gallery, “OK, you’ve heard all of that noise, let’s see if we can make some noise here ourselves.” And I knocked it in, and I was off.
15. All of a sudden I started making birdies and all of a sudden I remembered how to play. I remembered the feeling of being in contention. I remembered the feeling of how do you control your emotions and how do you enjoy the moment, too, and be with it and I had my son, Jack with me, and we had a conversation, and doing the things that you wouldn’t normally expect to have happen.
16. I remember the first tournament I played with that putter and the thing was so big that the wind would get to it. I thought, ‘Oh, man, what have I got this thing in my hands for?’
17. At the 12th I was thanking the people, who always were so fantastic there. It wasn’t the first tournament where I became emotional. The first time I had a gallery that made me cry was on the 11th at Muirfield 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. 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.
18. 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.
19. After being totally ticked at myself for doing what I did at 12, making bogey and making a spike mark worry me, it probably was a pretty good kick in the rear end to say, ‘Hey, you got yourself back to where you have a chance in this tournament and now you’d better have to go back and play.’
20. I couldn’t play 13 conservatively. I turned around the corner with a 3‑wood and hit a 3‑iron on the green which is a nice shot because you have overhanging limbs on the right side and I took it under the trees. I didn’t make eagle but, after making the bogey at 12, even though I’m kicking myself in the rear end, I knew that I had to turn my thought process around.
21. At the 15th I had 212 yards to the hole. I remember saying to Jackie, ‘How far do you think a 3 (eagle) will go here? And I don’t mean a 3-iron.’
22. I just loved the way that shot set up because I could go right at the pin. At Augusta you always have to protect against one side of the green. Trouble always seems to be on one side or the other, depending on where the hole is. On 15 that day there was room on the left and right, and I could go right at it.
23. I had a lot of confidence standing over the ball. I chose a 4-iron and hit the ball solid, very high, the ball stopping just a shade past the hole and to the left, about 12 feet away.
24. I got a little excited there. Got a little charged up. At this point I didn’t know how far behind I was, and I didn’t care.
25. Something I used to do, and I did it at 15, as I walked down the fairway, I remember stopping about halfway with my tee shot. I just looked around me and I saw all these people excited and having fun. I had done it a lot of times. You know, this is what I’m out here for. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. This is why I’m having so much fun. I says, go enjoy it and have a good time with it. And so that’s when I made the little remark to Jack, how far does a 3 go when I walked up to the ball.
26. I think the game doesn’t have to be so serious that you strangle yourself. You’ve got to be light enough that you keep yourself loose so that you can play, and that’s all part of it, and there’s a balance.
27. I’ve always been a leaderboard watcher, especially coming down to the end. But in this case I only knew I was behind and the leaderboard didn’t make any difference. Seve could have gone from 9-under to 2-under and it wouldn’t have made any difference to me. I was 5-under and all I cared about was getting to 7-under.
28. When that eagle putt went in, I was watching Jackie more than anything else. I told him, “If you could jump that high at North Carolina, you’d be playing basketball.” That was the first time I realised I could win the tournament.
29. Ballesteros had eagled 13 around the same time. I don’t know that he was going to run away but he was in pretty darn good shape. Anyway, there weren’t many more than Ballesteros in front of me at that point. I wasn’t doing a whole lot of math about that time. I was too busy making birdies.
30. The 16th is at the bottom of a valley. You have the sounds coming off the hillsides, the trees, the lake. The noise was deafening. I couldn’t hear anything. I mean, nothing! I wasn’t trying to think about the leaderboard. All I knew was that I was putting the ball on the green and making birdies.
31. I had 175 yards to the pin. I could hit either a hard 6-iron or put a 5-iron up in the air. I could even have faded a 4-iron but it didn’t set up for that. It by far is the easiest hole location on that green. Even a few feet long is OK. But the key is, you’ve got to get it to the hole. If I don’t hit the 6-iron quite perfectly, it’s not going to get there. Short is no good.
32. While I was preparing to play, Tom Weiskopf said: “Stay down, accelerate through the ball, make the swing you’re capable of making.” That was Tom’s thought pattern but my thought pattern was not that. Mine was, I’ve got 175 yards, I’ve got to hit the ball high in the air, I need to hit it softly. Make that swing.
33. Some people think about what they’re mechanically doing through the ball. I think about what I want the clubhead to do through the ball to make the ball do what I want. People look at things differently. There’s nothing wrong with what Tom said but I didn’t play by swing mechanics, I played by feeling things that would make the mechanics happen.
34. While the ball was in the air, Jackie said, “Be right!” and I just picked my tee up and said, “It is.” The remark I made was probably the cockiest I’ve ever made in the game of golf.
35.I’ve had a lot of great receptions at 16 in my life, but that one was pretty special. I made that putt and they were just going bananas. I’m sure Ballesteros could have heard that if he was still back on the 1st tee. It was pretty loud.
36. It was no gimme. It was a three-and-a-half-footer with a left-to-right break. If I hadn’t hit it firmly, it would have broken off.
37. I kept getting tears in my eyes. It happened to me once at Baltusrol. But here, it happened four or five times. I had to say to myself, ‘Hey, you’ve got some golf left to play.’
38. All of a sudden you get excited about something. And every time I come here, I always get excited, but just didn’t perform for a couple of years. And then all of a sudden I performed one year.
39. When I heard the noise [after Ballesteros’ shot], it was a blend of loud roar with a deep-sounding groan underneath it. It was not a nice sound. I’ve never wished anyone bad but I knew exactly what had happened. People were yelling at me, “It’s in the water! It’s in the water!” and I’m thinking, ‘I know that.’
40. At that point, Seve knew he was out of the tournament. In his mind, he’s gone.
41. I was talking to Seve at the Champions Dinner and he told me he hadn’t been playing a lot of golf, period, and not much tournament golf, and wasn’t as sharp as he needed to be.
42. Every time I wasn’t sharp and I got in a tough situation, I would never take more club and hit it easy. You’re much better off taking less club and hitting the ball harder. At 15, he picked an easy 4-iron rather than a hard 5-iron, and you can just see that he quit on it. It didn’t get halfway across the water. It was not a good shot. Frankly, I expected that somewhere during the week from Seve, but it didn’t happen until 15.
43. If somebody says they don’t watch the leaderboard, I don’t buy that, I’m sorry. Because you’ve got to know where you are to know how to play. Once you play a tournament, you’re playing against the course, you’re playing against yourself and trying to do the best you can. Now at a certain point in the tournament, it becomes a matchplay event and becomes a matchplay event against who is on the leaderboard, so you have to know who is there to do what you’re going to try to do.
44. I had sort of forgotten about Greg Norman. I really had not even thought much about Tom Kite.
45. And so I backed away from the tee shot and I knew exactly what had happened. At that point, I wanted to hit it up the left side, and probably hit it up a little further left than I wanted to. But I did not want to be on the right side of the hole I wanted to give myself an angle up into the green, and I left myself with 112 yards I think.
46. I hit a pitching wedge, which I knew I couldn’t hit over the green. So I hit it hard because I knew I wouldn’t do that.
47. It was about a 12-foot putt. I don’t normally ask Jackie – I don’t normally ask anybody – but I asked Jackie and he said, “Got to go right.” I said, “Yeah, I know, but I think it will come back to the left because of Rae’s Creek. There’s always that influence back there.” He said, “You sure?” I said, “Pretty sure.”
48. So I hit the putt, played it out a couple inches on the left, the ball broke right and the ball sort of turned and sort of straightened out, which meant it was turning back towards Rae’s Creek, and I obviously made the putt.
49. I have gone back and putted that putt 100 times since. I don’t think I’ve ever found the exact spot or the place it was before, but it’s never broken left again and I think they have changed the green a little bit.
50. Every couple of years they replace the greens and they change little items. If that green breaks back, that meant that the back part of that green was pitching away from a shot coming in. So they probably took that green and just probably lifted it.
51. They’ve re-sodded the greens many times since 1986, and it’s a slightly different putt. But the point is, I haven’t made it.
52. When I made the putt I realised that I was probably in the lead. I didn’t know exactly if I was but I probably was in the lead of the tournament.
53.My goal and focus was then to not worry about anybody else because they were going to chase me now and it was how do you play the last hole? You want to put the ball in the fairway. You don’t want to put the ball in the bunker.
54. There are two fairway bunkers and I knew the 3-wood wouldn’t reach the second although it could reach the first. My line was in between the two, and you can see me swinging beneath the ball to make sure the ball didn’t go left. I hit a nice little fade.
55. I left myself 175 yards. I didn’t want to be over the green. I didn’t mind being on the front of the green. I didn’t want to be on the front of the green but I didn’t mind being in the front of the green.
56. I hit a 5-iron, hit it solid. Just as I hit it, a little breath of wind hit me in the face and I knew exactly where it was going to go, it was going to go halfway up the slope and come back down. Great, now I’ve got this darned putt.
57.Fortunately I practised that putt quite a bit prior to the tournament because my design company had rebuilt several greens as they were too severe from back to front. So I knew that, so I practised that putt earlier in the week and felt pretty certain I was going to win the tournament.
58. Had it gone in, it would have made the next hour of my life a lot easier. Walking off 18 at Augusta on Sunday is always special. But especially when you’re the leader in the clubhouse.
59. This was maybe as fine a round of golf as I’ve ever played.
60. I’m not a big huggy person, but I am with my kids. Jackie and I were both elated at what happened. He’s my son. He was with me. That alone was more exciting than the tournament. So much of men’s professional golf is about the father-son relationship.
61. I don’t think there’s many times in my career that I went back and drew from the early days and repeated what I could do and was able to do it.
62. I didn’t realise that all Kite needed was a birdie at 18, and he was right behind me because I was focused on Seve and I wasn’t watching what Tom was doing.
63. Norman was way back and all of a sudden he made four straight birdies or something like that. So here is Greg Norman tied with me after 17.
What a great second shot he played at 17 over there by the 7th green, played a little shot under the trees, ran up on the green and holed the putt.
64. I’m sitting in the Jones’ Cabin watching that, and when Norman started making his first birdie, I was sitting there for a while and he made another birdie. And I said I’m not going to do very well sitting here. And so I started getting up and walking around the room pacing behind the couch, and he kept making birdies and so that didn’t do any good because I couldn’t control what he was doing. And then of course he played the bad second shot at 18.
65. A few months later Greg led the British Open at Turnberry after three rounds. I found him that Saturday night. I said, “Remember the swing you made at the last hole at Augusta, and the position you put yourself in? When you come down the stretch tomorrow, don’t put the club in that position again.” Greg won the next day. I don’t know if my advice helped him, but I did want to pass it along.
66. Once I got myself in contention, I remembered how to play golf. I was fortunate that the other guys didn’t finish quite as well as they could finish, and I won the tournament.
67. It was very serious the whole time, but I was light with the serious. I had fun with the day.
68. Oddly enough, it’s the only golf club that I won a major with that I don’t have. I’m sure one of my boys gave it away. Someday somebody will look in their garage and find my old putter.
69. I didn’t expect to win, the press didn’t expect me to win, the players didn’t expect me to win. But my talents were still there, my skills. It was a question of whether I could corral them, keep them in my head, keep myself organised and under control. That was the issue.
70. As I got closer and closer as the round went on, it became more difficult. I did it, and that’s what I’m most proud of. And having Jackie there to support me, that was just neat.
71. Winning it aged 46 years does not resonate so much today, simply because of the equipment. But I was playing with a wood driver, and with a wound golf ball. It was a different game. Things didn’t go as far. You didn’t reduce a course to nothing like you can today, so winning at that age was not easy to do, though golfers never swoon over what has happened. We move on, and talk about it 20 years later.
72. God, that was a great age. You don’t think anything about age when you’re playing. I mean, why would you ever think about that. I was physically in pretty darned good shape when I was 46. And you know, I wouldn’t have thought anything about that.
73. It was kind of a blur after that. By the time I finished with the press it was dark, and then I had dinner at the club. It was very late when I got back to the house.
74. People say things like: “I was in an airport in ’86 and cancelled my aeroplane to sit there and watch it because I couldn’t leave.” Or they had to do this, or they had to do that or they had to stop this or had to stop that.
75. It was the most gratifying win of my career. In my later years I always believed in two things: that on some days I could be as good as I ever was, and that if I got in contention in a major I would remember how to win. I might not win, but I would remember how.
76. Rather than thinking back and trying to compare to anything, I don’t have anything to compare it to. I obviously had some good runs. The five birdies I made at Inverrary one year; it’s not the Masters, but that wasn’t too bad. I’ve had a few other things like that. Nothing was really quite compared with ’86, no.
77. My original jacket was a 44 long. It fitted me like a tent. I wore [New York Governor] Tom Dewey’s jacket for years, and finally I had my own jacket made.
78. It wasn’t until 1998 that I got my own coat. Jack Stephens was the chairman then, and he heard I didn’t have one. So when I got to the club that year there was a note in my locker that said, “You will go to the pro shop, and you will get fitted for your own Green Jacket.”
79. Obviously all my 18 majors are very special. It is difficult to rank them but I think it is obvious that the ’86 win stands out simply because most of the others I expected to win; I expected to prepare for it that way, and I got the results that I was looking for.
80. I told my wife Barbara: “I finally found that guy I used to know on the golf course. It was me.”
Quotes gathered from the pages of National Club Golfer, Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and ASAP Sports.
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