Jack Nicklaus was 46, winless for two years, and six years removed from his 17th major title.
Not even the Golden Bear liked his odds of winning when he arrived at Augusta National for the 1986 Masters.
“I didn’t have a lot of goals at that point in my life as it relates to playing golf,” he said recently. “I felt like my time was pretty much over, but I didn’t really want to stop playing golf.”
Yet when the 50th Masters ended, Nicklaus was the tournament’s oldest champion and the biggest story in golf since Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam in 1930.
Nicklaus’ victory was so captivating that memories from that magical final round seem vivid 25 years later: the thunderous roar on 17, the emotional walk up the 18th fairway, the embrace with son Jackie, his caddie.
Nicklaus shot 30 on the back nine. He played the final 10 holes in 7 under par. Left in his wake were future Hall of Famers Greg Norman, Tom Kite, Seve Ballesteros, Tom Watson, Bernhard Langer and Nick Price.
It was a masterpiece of creative nonfiction, a story that resonated with people from all walks of life.
“I don’t care where I go, I always run into somebody who says, ’I was in an airport in ’86, I canceled my airplane and sat there and watched it because I couldn’t leave.’.” said Nicklaus, 71. “Or, ‘I had to do this or I had to do that and I had to stop.’ Amazing the number of people that told me those kinds of stories. I said, ’You’ve got to be kidding.’”
Lee Trevino, who finished second to last, went off in the first group Sunday. When he left Augusta for the 2 1/2-hour drive to Atlanta, Nicklaus had just teed off.
“My wife and I are driving to the airport,” Trevino said. “Jack is on 14. And then he eagles 15. And the airline, there was a bar across from the gate in Atlanta, and I am drinking double scotches. And he won that tournament. ‘Hold the plane, hold the plane!’ we are screaming at this guy to hold the plane. Everybody is watching. The airport is going nuts. My wife and I are there and I’m hitting it hard, I’m hitting it hard, ‘Come on, Jack!’”
Jim Furyk was 15, playing with two other juniors at a public course near his family’s home in West Chester, Pa. The kids took a seat in the restaurant/bar when they saw the Masters telecast coming on.
“There was no one in the place, and as the day went on, the 19th hole filled up, as word got out that Nicklaus was leading,” Furyk said. “Jack was a hero of mine growing up. That’s probably the very first tournament that I can remember shots being hit and where I was.”
The week held special meaning for Nicklaus even before he slipped on his sixth green jacket. His wife was in the gallery, his mother was attending her first Masters since 1959, and his sister was making her first appearance.
Each time Nicklaus went to the refrigerator in their rented house, he saw a newspaper story about the washed-up Golden Bear taped to the door.
“I guess nobody really expected me to be in contention at that point in my career, particularly me,” he said. “I had not really prepared all that great for it. But once I got myself in contention, muscle memory and knowing how to play golf came back.”
Nicklaus offered no hints of contending the first two rounds. He shot 74 on Thursday and 71 on Friday, trailing leader Ballesteros by six. Nicklaus’ 69 put him four strokes behind leader Norman entering the final round. Ballesteros, Watson, Kite and Langer were also leading Nicklaus.
As Nicklaus made his charge on Sunday, each birdie inspired confidence. He took only 33 strokes on the final 10 holes, going birdie, birdie, birdie, bogey, birdie, par, eagle, birdie, birdie, par.
“I felt like when I birdied 9, I was decent,” he said. “When I eagled 15, I knew I was in the middle of it.”
On the par-3 16th, which requires a tough shot over water to a sloping green, Nicklaus hit wedge, then immediately bent to pick up his tee.
“Be right!” said Jackie.
“It is,” Nicklaus said with a wink.
His long birdie putt on 17 brought a roar so powerful that people later said it felt like the ground shook. With a par on 18 securing his 65, Nicklaus was the clubhouse leader at 9 under. He waited as the players he had chased began chasing him.
Ballesteros’ hopes sank in the water fronting the No. 15 green. Kite missed three straight birdie putts. Norman made four birdies to tie and needed a birdie on 18 to win. He bogeyed, failing to get up and down from right of the green.
Nicklaus will have constant reminders of 1986 this week at Augusta, where he’ll play the par-3 contest. How strong is his memory? Asked last month if he could recall the clubs he hit to the greens that special Sunday, Nicklaus said:
“Every significant club. I mean, I don’t remember what I hit at 9 but I remember the putt certainly. I don’t remember what I hit on 10 but I remember the putt. I don’t remember what I hit on 11 but I hit the putt and I hit a 7-iron into 12 and played 3-iron into 13. I think I played 7-iron into 14. I hit a 4-iron into 15. I hit a 5-iron on 16. I hit pitching wedge at 17 and I hit 5-iron at 18.
“But outside of that, I can’t remember.”