By Thomas Stinson
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Jack Nicklaus had come to Augusta in search of an estranged old friend.
As Masters week arrived in 1986, Nicklaus scared no one anymore. He hadn’t won anything in two years and was six years removed from his last major championship. In seven tournaments that year, he missed the cut three times and withdrew from a fourth. He was 46, twice as old as when he won his first Masters in 1963. He estimated there were 11 players in that field he’d never even met.
When he hit the grounds at Augusta National, he confessed to reporters: “I’m looking for that guy I used to know on the golf course.”
As the Masters observes the 30th anniversary of its wildest weekend, plenty will be written in the retelling of how a faded legend, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution golf writer and a refrigerator conspired to create one of the more memorable golf stories ever told. Herbert Warren Wind, the day’s most authoritative golf scribe, pronounced Nicklaus’ performance that Sunday as the game’s greatest achievement since Bobby Jones’ 1930 grand slam.
“It’s amazing,” Nicklaus told NBC last month. “It happens to me 10 times a week. I meet somebody and they say, ‘Oh, the ’86 Masters. I was in the grocery store and I ended up being in the grocery store for an hour watching.’”
First, some debunking.
Anyone who claims to have seen this coming, even on the Sunday morning in question, probably lies about his handicap, too. Nicklaus made the cut that Friday at 1-over 143 and was tied for 17th entering the weekend. On No. 1 tee Sunday, he was four behind the leaders. He missed two four-foot birdie putts within the first eight holes and made the turn still four back.
“I didn’t think I was going to be doing too much,” Nicklaus said of his prospects, “and I hadn’t been preparing that well for that week.”
What Tom McCollister wrote the previous weekend also needs a little clarification. Well-liked with a reputation for his fairness, McCollister, longtime golf writer for the AJC, had prepared a full-page Masters advance the previous Sunday, with an analysis of the field. Breaking down the entrants into various groups — foreign players, Georgians, the young and old — he included in his glance a look at past champions Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd, Craig Stadler and found fault with all of them.
But it was his comment about Nicklaus — “Nicklaus is gone, done. He just doesn’t have the game anymore. It’s rusted from lack of use. He’s 46, and nobody that old wins the Masters.” — that caught the attention of Nicklaus family friend John Montgomery. He clipped the item, scotch-taped it to the refrigerator door in the Augusta home the Nicklauses were renting that week and when this little item was made public, McCollister accidentally became part of the story.
But to what extent? Nicklaus after the final round acknowledged that McCollister, who died in 1999, was right.
“When John put that article on the refrigerator when I had to look at it, I had to sizzle for a while,” Nicklaus said that Sunday night 30 years ago. “To tell you the truth, I kind of agreed with Tom, I’m afraid, but it helped get me going.”
What really got him going was No. 9 green, where he faced an 11-footer for birdie. Twice, he had to walk away from the putt. Behind him on No. 8, Seve Ballesteros and then Tom Kite made back-to-back eagles, Ballesteros taking the lead from Greg Norman, five shots up on Nicklaus. Jackie Nicklaus, his 24-year-old son who caddied for him that week, suggested a putting line to the left edge of the cup.
“I played it to the top of the cup, and it went right in,” Nicklaus said. “That got me started. I got loose with that because we had fun with it.”
Over his final 10 holes, Nicklaus ripped off six birdies and an eagle, including an eagle-birdie-birdie streak on Nos. 15, 16 and 17. His 30 on the back nine set the course record. But the math hardly reflects the human theater.
Anyone who was there heard Nicklaus’ charge long before the leaderboard could post another red number. The galleries raced just to catch the Nicklaus-Sandy Lyle pairing, if only for a glimpse of passing blond hair.
Nick Price, who set the course record with a 63 the day before and was in the middle of the hunt, came to No. 13 and estimated there were only 30 people lining the fairway at perhaps Augusta National’s most famous holes. He said later he felt like he was playing a Monday practice round.
The biggest shot of the day? History offers a virtual gallery of them, but Nicklaus has a strong opinion on the par 3 No. 12. He flew the green, wound up with his only bogey of the round and said, “That really got me going. I need to be more aggressive.”
His two-putt birdie on No. 13 drew him to within two shots of Ballesteros. On that green, Lyle tells a story that Nicklaus remarked that Jackie had just informed his father it was all becoming too much for his young heart to handle.
“What about me?” Nicklaus said. “I’m 46!”
At No. 15, after he eagled from 12 feet, the crowd’s roar was so deafening that Nicklaus said he couldn’t hear anything. At No. 16, he peered across the pond and summoned the young Jack again.
“I hit my shot, and it was the cockiest remark I’ve ever made,” Nicklaus said. “I hit the shot, looked at it in the air and I knew it was just perfect. Jackie said, ‘Be right, be right.’ And I said, ‘It is.’”
He nearly holed it out, tapped in his birdie putt was standing over his tee shot on No. 17 when an unsettled cry went out from the nearby 15th. Ballesteros had dropped his approach shot in the pond. Nicklaus had caught him and when he sunk a tricky 11-footer for a last birdie at 17 green, he had gained a one-shot lead on Ballesteros and Kite and a two-shot edge on Norman.
Nicklaus, who said he had to hold back tears several times in the closing holes, posted his 280 and headed from the Jones Cabin to wait out the counter-attack that never came. Ballesteros three-putted No. 17, losing two shots to par in the last four holes and finishing two shots back.
Kite needed a birdie on No. 18 to force a playoff, but missed a 12-footer. Norman birdied No. 17 to catch Nicklaus and could have won the championship with a closing birdie. But his approach flew into the gallery on the right, he failed to get up-and-down to save par and lost his grip on the lead.
Nicklaus had become the first player to successfully defend a Masters title as well as becoming the oldest player to win a major. And while he would never win another PGA Tour event, regrets from the vanquished were tempered.
“I didn’t lose this tournament,” Kite said afterward. “Jack won it.”
Aside from the green jacket ceremony, the last remaining business involved media-room theatrics. Filing a story for the AJC’s first edition, McCollister was missing when Nicklaus began taking reporters’ questions in an interview area. But when he walked in and headed up the main aisle for a seat, Nicklaus stopped in midsentence, gave a small smile and said, “Hi, Tom. Thanks.”
Without skipping a beat, McCollister replied, “Glad I could help,” before resuming work on the most unlikely story he’d ever write.
About the author
Thomas Stinson is a veteran baseball writer and has covered other sports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has written from the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club numerous times.