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Nicklaus at 70
Some readers' poll questions seem a little redundant, like the one currently appearing on www.golfdigest.com which asks visitors to the site to vote for Jack Nicklaus's most memorable tournament victory. Not surprisingly, the Golden Bear's glorious come-from-four-shots-behind-Greg Norman-with-Seve Ballesteros-Tom Kite-Bernhard Langer-Tom Watson-Nick Price-and-Tommy Nakajima-also-in-the-hunt triumph at the 1986 Masters is winning with a fairly conclusive 88% of the vote. Really, the result of the question "What is Jack Nicklaus's most memorable victory?" begs another; "What on Earth are the other 12% voting for?"
Some opt for his 15th major championship win - at the same tournament 11 years previously when he beat Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf by the smallest of margins after seemingly breaking the stalemate with a 40-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole. Then there's the 1962 U.S. Open, '66 Open Championship, '72 U.S. Open and '80 U.S. Open, all of which pick up a handful of votes.
The fact these other victories were notable and earned by virtue of scintillating golf is not in doubt. But you have to believe those who chose them over the '86 Masters were either watching another channel that extraordinary afternoon when Nicklaus came dashing home in 30 strokes for a final round 65 to beat Kite and Norman by one and Ballesteros by two, or on strong medication.
If you recall, Nicklaus, then 46, had arrived at Augusta National with few backers. Six years had passed since his last win at a major championship and he was nearly two years removed from PGA Tour win No.72 - at his own Memorial Tournament in Ohio. The year 1985 was, frankly, a disaster with just three top-10 finishes and missed cuts at both the U.S. Open and Open Championship. And three missed cuts and a best finish of 39th from seven tournaments prior to Augusta the following year suggested he really was no longer capable of competing at a level he had dominated for 20 years, just as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Tom McCollister - the writer whose article was famously pinned to Nicklaus's fridge door - had surmised when he said the Bear was "done, washed up, through."
The resulting determination to prove McCollister and the rest of the world premature in consigning Nicklaus to the history books, coupled with a timely and revealing session with long-time teacher Jack Grout a few weeks before the Masters when Grout identified a nagging flaw in his study's swing, served to reawaken the sleeping giant. But it still took three rounds for the medicine to finally take effect.
An opening 2-over-par 74 gave no indication of what was to come, and a second-round 71 put him six back of Ballesteros, who had won four times and finished in the top-10 10 times in 11 appearances on the European Tour in 1985, and who was working on a six-win season, with 12 top-fives from 14 starts, in 1986.
Even Nicklaus's solid Saturday 69 was totally overshadowed by Nick Price's course-record 63. And with so significant a gap between him and Norman, who led after three rounds at 6-under par, and so many quality players between him and the Australian, Nicklaus wasn't considered a serious threat before the start of the final round.
Eyebrows didn't begin to rise and attention didn't start to get paid until he began the back nine with two long birdies putts that snaked into their respective targets. The applause that greeted both was definitely more generous than the polite smattering an also-ran could have expected, but that might have had more to do with who was doing the putting than excitement generated by knowing you are watching a serious contender.
Then he bogeyed the short 12th and the noise receded.
A birdie at the 13th got him back in the picture, the frame at least. And then, after a par on the 14th, he hit a monster drive on the 15th that left him 202 yards to a flag that the situation demanded he go for.
Struck sweetly with a 4-iron, his ball climbed high and landed just a few feet from the hole before spinning 12 feet left of it. The putt, like so many he hit that day, went in the middle of the hole at precisely the right speed. The game couldn't have been more on.
At the 16th, his 5-iron tee shot flew to the back of the green and slid back down the slope toward the hole. The gallery rose to its feet, noisily directing the ball toward the hole with sheer volume. It stopped 3 feet away and Nicklaus rammed the putt home. Back on the 15th, a rattled Ballesteros, who had a long wait to play his second, could barely hear himself think. He thoughtlessly tried guiding a lazy 4-iron onto the green when a committed 5-iron was the play. He hit an ugly, half-hearted chunk into the pond and he and Nicklaus were tied. But Nicklaus wasn't done yet.
At the 17th, his drive went left but he managed to run his second up onto the green and then send a slippery, double-breaking 18-footer into the hole. He now had the lead to himself and, after parring the last and watching Ballesteros, Norman and Kite all fail to match his 279 total, 1985 champion Langer helped him into a sixth green jacket.
Those fortunate enough to be watching knew they had witnessed something very special, not just Jack Nicklaus's most memorable win, but probably the most memorable major championship since eight strangely-bearded young men in plaid lumbermen jackets got together at Prestwick, Scotland, in 1860 to play for a red leather belt.
Nicklaus's many British fans would concede his '86 Masters win was the greatest of his many accomplishments. But the performance they might rate second was not actually a win at all. In 1977, on the scorched links of Turnberry, the then 37-year-old 14-time major champion locked horns over the weekend with a young Tom Watson in an encounter every bit as thrilling as the '86 Masters would be, but for a lack of contenders (third-place Hubert Green finished 10 strokes behind second) and the fact Nicklaus wasn't yet 46.
After two rounds, Nicklaus, Watson, Green and Lee Trevino were tied at 138, a shot behind leader Roger Maltbie. Mark Hayes, who in the second round shot the first-ever 63 in an Open Championship, was two back.
The sun shone hard for the weekend as Nicklaus and Watson pulled away from the field in round three with spectacular 65s. Sunday would be a showdown between the two best players in the world and, just as they had the day before, the pair traded far more than their share of birdies. Nicklaus birdied the second to go two ahead and the fourth to lead by three. Watson birdied the fifth and seventh to pull within one, drew level at the eighth, but dropped back with a bogey at the ninth. Nicklaus holed from 25 feet for birdie at the 12th to go two clear. Watson pulled to within one at the 13th, then holed a monstrous 60-footer across the green at the short 15th to draw level.
The pivotal moment came at the par-5 5 17th where Nicklaus missed a 4-foot putt for birdie. Watson holed his birdie effort to take a one-shot lead to the last, where he found the middle of the fairway with a 1-iron. Nicklaus, needing to apply some pressure, hit a driver but pushed the shot, his ball coming to rest below the branches of a gorse bush. With a shot not dissimilar to the mighty 6-iron Arnold Palmer had hit out of a bush at the 15th hole at Royal Birkdale in 1961, Nicklaus smashed his ball onto the green, about 40 feet from the hole. Watson, meanwhile, knocked a 7-iron to 3 feet and, with that, put one-and-a-half hands on the Claret Jug.
Nicklaus had a birdie putt on the 18th green he had to hole. And as he usually did when faced with a birdie putt on the 18th green he had to hole, he holed it. Watson was stunned as the crowd went wild. But the 27-year-old from Kansas rolled in his putt to win by a stroke.
In typical fashion, Nicklaus shook Watson's hand warmly and put his arm around his shoulder. They walked off the green laughing. Such was the manner in which Nicklaus accepted his few defeats. He had done it at the 1975 Ryder Cup at Laurel Valley where Britain's Brian Barnes beat him twice in singles on the same day, and he'd have to acknowledge Watson again, this time at the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach when his nemesis birdied the last two holes to beat him by two.
Then there was the conceded putt on the 18th green against Tony Jacklin in the 1969 Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale, a concession Jacklin later described as the "greatest single sporting gesture in golf."
"I gave Tony the putt because he was a hero in Great Britain," Nicklaus said. "He was the only Englishman to have won the British Open in many years. I felt that he was so important to the game of golf and what the sport meant in Great Britain. I didn't think it made any difference as it related to the matches, because we were going to retain the Cup either way. I just felt it was the right thing to do."
Largely because of what happened at Birkdale, and then at Turnberry eight years later, Nicklaus has always been revered in Britain. It took a while for galleries in America to give him his due, however. At the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont in Pennsylvania, Nicklaus made it into an 18-hole playoff with local favorite Palmer, already the undisputed king of golf, and was heckled mercilessly. Shouts of "Fat Jack" rang out, spectators exhorted him to miss putts, and one man stood in the trees holding a card that read "Hit it here Jack." (One wonders what the notoriously sensitive Colin Montgomerie would have done under similar circumstances. We can safely assume he wouldn't have done what Nicklaus did, which was to ignore it and win.)
But everyone loves a winner, so the odious taunting and insults faded away soon enough. Even so, Nicklaus has never enjoyed the same level of affection as Palmer whose 80th birthday last year seemed to be celebrated more earnestly and for longer than Nicklaus's anniversary this year. That obviously says more about Palmer's popularity than it does any lingering aversion to Nicklaus, but it would be fair to say that while Palmer is adored and cherished, Nicklaus is respected and admired.
And in 10 years' time, when Nicklaus's cake will shift under the weight of 80 candles, that respect and admiration will still be in place, and the '86 Masters and '77 Open Championship stories will still be told as enthusiastically as ever.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.