Even Jack Nicklaus’ memory is Memorex ripe when it comes to 1986. Asked recently what club he hit into Augusta National’s 17th green on that fateful Sunday 25 years ago, the Golden One gleamed: “Pitching wedge, 110 yards . . . close enough?
“I don't remember what I hit on 11 but I hit the putt and I hit a 7-iron into (No.) 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,” Nicklaus continued. “But outside of that, I can't remember.”
It’s a testament to the significance of the event that even the guy who penned the game’s greatest chapter can be infected by the “what were you doing when . . .?” bug. Nicklaus’ 1986 Masters victory transcended sports and time – like the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” or Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962.
Anyone within ear-shot of a small-screen, low-def television can remember the eagle at the 15th followed by workman-like birdies at Nos. 16 and 17. There was Seve Ballesteros’ watery 4-iron on the 15th hole and Greg Norman, poor Greg Norman, who needed a par at the last to force a playoff , but instead could only manage a skanky 4-iron. Bogey. Bring on the marching band.
A golf course designer five years removed from his last major won his sixth green jacket in “the December of my career” he explained to a stunned press corps. Scribes who were there still recall thinking that this one was “too big to write.” And preeminent golf writer Dan Jenkins seemed to have nailed it with his lead:
“If you want to put golf back on the front pages again and you don't have a Bobby Jones or a Francis Ouimet handy, here's what you do: You send an aging Jack Nicklaus out in the last round of the Masters and let him kill more foreigners than a general named Eisenhower.”
Average people with no more than a passing interest in the game remember Nicklaus’ ’86 masterpiece like child births and weddings, some taken by the competitive perfection of it, all others the timelessness of the achievement.
Nicklaus started the final round tied for ninth and four strokes behind Norman, who turned in 1 under before things unraveled with a double bogey at the 10th hole. With 10 holes to play, Nicklaus was still six strokes adrift of front-runner Ballesteros. But he closed with a back-nine 30, which has been bested by only two others in Masters’ history, and signed for a 65, which tied for the day’s lowest card.
But as clutch as Nicklaus’ Sunday play was it is another number that captivated fans, fervent or otherwise. At 46 years old Nicklaus was, at best, a part-time player and, unlike the modern game which has been dominated in recent years by forty-somethings thanks to technology and fitness advances, was viewed in many ways as a ceremonial golfer.
“I don't even know why I was playing golf then. I don’t really,” Nicklaus said. “I was doing my golf course design work, but I really liked to play golf. I didn't want to quit playing golf but I really didn't have any goals. So from about (1980) on, I was there. And then just sort of lightning in a bottle I suppose in many ways.”
What transpired between the pines that Sunday 25 years ago left an indelible mark on an entire generation, to say nothing of a young Englishman who has no trouble filling in the blank “where were you when . . .?”
“The players’ locker room to just watch how it all unfolded,” Sandy Lyle recalls with little prompting.
“When Norman made four birdies in a row I thought Norman was going to nip (Nicklaus), but then Norman makes such a mess at the 18th hole. Everything was unfolding in Nicklaus’ favor. The old devil made a great effort with his 65 but you could see the golfing gods were watching over him.”
Lyle had the closest thing to a front-row seat for anyone not named Nicklaus that day. He teed off with Nicklaus that April afternoon about 45 minutes before the leaders – just far enough out of the conversation to keep his mind from wondering. Or so he thought.
“I was not thinking we had much of a chance to win the tournament. Jack may have been,” said Lyle, who had never played with Nicklaus, his boyhood hero.
But then there was the birdie at No. 2 when Nicklaus landed his 7-iron approach shot in an area about the size of a “biscuit tin” for birdie. And at the eighth, when the eventual champion emerged from the trees where he’d hit his drive: “He came walking toward me with a big grin. ‘I tried to go through a gap of 6 feet and went through a gap of 6 inches,’ he said. He missed his target, but he made par,” Lyle remembers.
For the rest of the day Lyle watched, intently. Although he would go on to sign for a 1-under 71, and claim his own green jacket two years later, Lyle admits now, in the December of his career, he was more patron than player that day.
“I was very aware history was sort of unfolding. I had my own battle going on, but I was almost spectating with the last two or three holes. Jack was in overdrive,” he said.
With almost more clarity than Nicklaus, Lyle can recount Nicklaus’ back nine like a court reporter. At the 13th hole when Nicklaus’ son, Jackie, turned and pleaded, “This is no good for my young heart.” Nicklaus’ eagle at the 15th hole, his birdie at No. 16 with “an absolute classic shot” and the “wonderful putt” from 12 feet for birdie at No. 17.
“The noise level by the time he made the eagle at 15 was deafening. You could hear the golfing gods,” Lyle recalls as his memory races back 25 years.
Lyle tied for 11th in 1986, but he likely couldn’t tell you that. For nine holes Lyle, the competitor, was transformed into Lyle, the witness to history, just like the rest of us. The only difference is he had a better view.