The Masters. Those two words didn’t mean much to me in the summer of ’85. That would change shortly thereafter. While at lunch one day, the topic of golf came up. I honestly don’t remember why now. A co-worker happened to live just off the 10th fairway at Cobb’s Glen in Anderson, but had never given golf a try. Almost on a whim, he and I decided to get some clubs and give it a go. Knowing nothing about equipment, I purchased a set of Sam Snead clubs from the local K-Mart, and we headed off to the nine-hole Donaldson Golf Course for our first round. I still have that score card today. I’ve been hooked since that first swing.
By the time the ’86 Masters rolled around in April, I was an avid golfer playing regularly and looking forward to watching the year’s first big tournament. Greg Norman was the premier golfer of the day and led after 54 holes. On Sunday, as he would do many times over his career, he faltered early. This opened the door for a host of competitors including a supposedly “over-the-hill” 46-year-old, five-time champion, Jack Nicklaus. Jack was quietly going along in his Sunday round and was even par thru the first eight holes. After hitting a nice approach to nine and while studying his putt, a loud roar came from behind, signifying something special had happened. Both Seve Ballesteros and Tom Kite had eagled the eighth hole. Jack backed off his putt and after gathering himself, holed his birdie putt to post 35 on the front nine.
Earlier in the week, an article that handicapped the field was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The writer had commented that Nicklaus’s chances were “done, washed up, through” and gave him no chance to win the tournament. A close friend of Jack had read the article and mostly to irritate his friend, stuck a copy of it on the refrigerator of the house they were renting in Augusta. He knew there was no way Jack would miss seeing it there. He did see it, and though he was 46 at the time, in no way did he think of himself as washed up. Like all great athletes, he used it as motivation.
There is a famous saying at the Masters: the tournament doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday. With that in mind, Jack birdied ten to pull within four shots of the lead. He then followed with his third birdie in a row at eleven and coupled with Ballesteros’s bogey on nine, pulled within two shots of the lead. There was now a buzz in the crowd as word spread of Nicklaus’s heroics.
All avid golfers are very familiar with the famous par three 12th hole at Augusta and though short, it is considered one of the great holes in golf. Many Masters contenders have lost the tournament at this very hole, and it is one of the most pressure-packed shots in all of golf. Jack avoided Rae’s Creek but made bogey after missing a short par putt to fall three shots back. The crowd sensed this was the end of his run. Later Jack would say that this setback “really got me going. I knew I couldn’t play defensive and would have to be aggressive to have a chance.”
Jack proceeded to birdie the 13th to pull back within two shots. He pars the 14th and while waiting to hit his second to 15, learned that Ballesteros had eagled the 13th, putting him four shots behind. Jack’s son, Jackie, was his caddie for the week, and while standing at the top of the hill on 15, Jack asked Jackie, “You think a 3 would go very far here?” Jackie, thinking his dad was talking about which club to hit, said “Well, it’s either that or 4-iron.” Laughing, Jack said “I’m talking about eagle!” With that he rifled a 4-iron to 12 feet and sank the putt for eagle, again pulling within two shots. As Ballesteros was walking to that same spot at the top of the hill on 15, one of the loudest roars ever heard at Augusta went up. For anyone who has ever been there, the area around the 15th and 16th greens is one of the prime viewing spots on the course and is absolutely packed with spectators or “patrons” to use the Masters terminology. Jack had nearly holed his shot on the par three 16th hole and would make the short three foot birdie putt. With the patrons screaming and the pressure of the moment, Ballesteros hit one of the worst shots ever seen in championship golf. He hooked a four iron into the pond and made double bogey, handing the lead to the “washed up” 46 year-old Nicklaus. Jack would add to that lead by making a famous birdie on the 17th, and Ballesteros would 3-putt that same hole ending his chances. Jack nearly birdied the 18th and walked off the green arm in arm with his son Jackie leading the Masters.
Remember how this story started with Greg Norman leading? We’ll get back to him momentarily. Jack had to dodge the first bullet from Tom Kite, who had contended in many Masters and came to 18 needing a birdie to force a tie with Nicklaus. Tom hit a beautiful approach to about fifteen feet and then a great putt that somehow didn’t fall leaving only Norman with a chance. While all the attention was on Nicklaus, Norman quietly made four birdies in a row on holes 14 through 17 and stood in the middle of the fairway on 18 with a chance to win the tournament should he make birdie. A par and he and Nicklaus would be in a sudden death playoff. Norman proceeded to hit his second shot so far into the crowd to the right that it took a long time to clear people back so that he could play his third. He eventually made bogey, which handed Jack Nicklaus his 6th green jacket.
That was my first Masters. I recorded it on VHS that day and watched it many times over after that. (Watch clips from the Masters on YouTube) To this day, it’s still the greatest golf tournament I’ve seen. If you have the Golf Channel, check your listings and look for an ’86 highlight show during their Masters Week coverage this week. It won’t be quite like watching it live that day, but it should give you a sense of what it was like.
There was a time not too long ago that you could drive down on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday and buy a ticket for a practice round. I went three times in the early ’90s on Tuesday and paid $15 for a ticket. Now even the practice round tickets are hard to come by. Many things have changed over the last 25 years, including the course. In my opinion, not all of the changes have been for the better. But The Masters is still one of the premier events in all of sports, and if you have the opportunity to go, whether a golfer or not, go. I promise you will not regret it.