When the leaders approached the final nine holes of the 39th Masters 39 years ago, no one could have predicted how significant the next two hours would be to their careers, the tournament, and golf itself.
In his new book, The Magnificent Masters: Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf and the 1975 Cliffhanger at Augusta (Da Capo Press, available everywhere books are sold), Golf Channel and NBC Sports' Gil Capps recounts the protagonists and setting that produced one of the most memorable Masters ever. Here is an excerpt.
“Five, Four, Three,” Frank Chirkinian counted down, “Two, One … Sing, Vinny.” That was the guidance Vin Scully received before CBS came on the air. “It always seemed to lift me, make me rise to the occasion,” says Scully of the Chirkinian command.
Before the days of the internet and mobile devices and all-sports cable stations, CBS television and radio was the nation’s lone connection to up-to-date play at the Masters. The first time the nation saw Augusta that Sunday came just before 4:00 p.m., as CBS gave an update into the NBA playoff game that preceded the golf. “The Augusta National Golf Club has seen some marvelous finishing rounds, and this fourth and final round of the 1975 Masters might very well be a story that will live for many years to come,” were the first words out of Scully’s mouth. Chirkinian showed Nicklaus’s second shot on the 9th on tape and then his seven-foot birdie putt from behind the hole to tie for the lead before sending it back to Brent Musburger.
Scully couldn’t believe his fortune. The storyline at the beginning of the week remained the storyline late Sunday afternoon. “The three men that I was thinking about the most are all locked in on Sunday,” says Scully. There were no cameras on holes 1–8, but he didn’t need sight to figure out what was happening.
“I’ll never forget the sounds of Augusta,” says Scully who took in the scene from his tower at the top of the hill, just to the golfer’s left of the 18th green. “You would sit at 18 with that large gallery around the green and all of a sudden, like cannon-fire, you’d hear a roar, sometimes a muffled kind of a sound, but always a roar. Immediately everyone would look over at the leaderboard, and then they would change a number.
“Well on Sunday, you started to hear the roars, and you started to see that this was going to be Nicklaus, Weiskopf, and Miller. I couldn’t believe that the storyline held up all the way through, but it did. There they were: the big three. And it was amazing.”
Indeed, the game’s best three players — each at the top of his game going to the final nine holes — all with a chance on the closing holes was rare. In major championships, there had been plenty of two-man duels. Jones-Hagen. Snead-Hogan. Nicklaus-Palmer. Nicklaus-Trevino. But never the top three.
In the 16th tower, Henry Longhurst had just taken the single red rose out of the glass that cameraman George Drago left him before every broadcast. Then, he made haste of the glass’s remnants — gin. About 150 yards away, Ben Wright was in his position just behind the right corner of the 15th green. With nothing but the years of Masters winners jotted down on a pairing sheet, he summoned the advice Longhurst gave him several years earlier: “We are nothing but caption writers in the picture business. If you can’t improve the quality of the pictures with your words, then keep your damned mouth shut.” Like Scully, they didn’t want to screw this up — not only for fear of their boss — but because they were the soundtrack to golf’s greatest moments.
It’s not known when or who coined the phrase, “the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday,” and whether or not it was widely acknowledged before or after 1975. Of course, that was the case at most any tournament when the nerves were ratcheted and pressure heightened on the closing holes. But that Masters myth certainly gained traction following this day with an epic finish that would earn the tournament much of its reputation.
In the heat of battle on the finishing holes was where Jack Nicklaus was most confident at this stage in his career. “I was a good closer,” he said years later. “In part, it was because I had a lot of opportunities; in part it was probably a function of my temperament. I’m sure some players have a counterproductive personality or temperament for handling pressure and finishing off a tournament. Good golf requires a lot of self-knowledge.”
Nicklaus continued to think about completing his backswing. He played the percentages and made pars on the first three holes of the second nine. Meanwhile, the final twosome ran into difficulties on the two downhill holes, 10 and 11.
As soon as he was just two shots back — the closest he’d been all week — Miller’s pesky putter reappeared. He missed an eight-foot birdie putt at the 10th, leaving it a few inches short, right in the heart. At the 11th, his birdie attempt from thirty feet just missed on the high side and ran by two feet. When he hit the comebacker, the ball caught the right side of the hole and spun out to the left. “I didn’t hit a bad putt, it just broke more than I thought,” says Miller, who stared at the ball for five seconds. “That was a huge, huge putt for me, though, to stop a little momentum.”
Weiskopf parred the 10th hole after a simple chip from the front of the green to tap-in range. He found himself at a perfect angle on the left side of the fairway at the 11th. “It was kind of a hairy lie,” he says of the ball in the fairway, a lie you could get at Augusta National in spots where the overseed hadn’t come in.
“When you are really good at what you do — and I was good at what I did —with every club I was within two steps one way or the other of that distance,” says Weiskopf. “Now the wind comes into it, now the excitement, the nerves, the pressure of the shot, the choice of the shot, the lie — good or bad. That’s what makes it difficult — it’s not the yardage.”
With a 5-iron, he aimed away from the left-rear hole location tucked along the edge of the pond. It wasn’t far enough right. Weiskopf pulled the shot, and the ball hit on the bank and rolled back into the water. Because the ball had initially carried the hazard, he was able to drop on the other side between the hole and point of entry instead of a more difficult angle on the ball drop. He dropped the ball over his right shoulder—as was the rule then. Still, there was just ten feet of green between the water and the hole on the ninety-foot shot. “That shot’s impossible,” says Miller.
“I took a chance,” Weiskopf says. “It’s either going to be a good choice or a bad choice. I was comfortable with that shot because I had a really good lie … I felt like I could get it eight or ten feet past the hole.” But Weiskopf didn’t hit it hard enough. His heart was in his throat for a split second before the ball barely cleared the bank and rolled up three feet from the hole. He made the putt to salvage a bogey. It was an important up-and-in, but it was his first dropped shot in twenty-seven holes. For the first time all day, he trailed.
Jack Nicklaus now possessed the outright lead. At 11 under par, he led by one over Weiskopf and three over Miller. There were only seven holes to play.
Miller stayed aggressive and fired right at the flag on the 12th but was a club short. It barely carried into the bunker (the only one to find that bunker on Sunday) — the same one he holed out from in 1971. Only this time with the new sand, it didn’t bury. He escaped to three feet and made par. Weiskopf hit a 7-iron to the left of the pin and two-putted from forty feet for his par.
Standing in the fairway at the 13th, Nicklaus had been striking the ball as well as at any point during the week. He hadn’t missed a shot since the opening hole. On his second shot, however, he got too fast with his long-iron into the green. This time, it resulted in a pull to the left in between the first and second greenside bunkers. It settled just a few feet off the green but 100 feet away, Nicklaus chose to chip it to the back-right hole location. The ball barely got halfway to the hole, leaving him more than twenty-five feet for birdie. He couldn’t make it and had thrown away the first of two par-five opportunities coming home.
Back on the tee, while Nicklaus and Miller remained in short-sleeved golf shirts, Weiskopf pulled his sweater out of the bag and put it on. His 3-wood off the tee didn’t turn over and went straight behind the pine trees, forcing him to lay up. He hit his wedge shot strong and mis-read his birdie putt coming back down the slope.
The only one to take advantage of the easiest hole on the course was Miller. His drive around the corner of the dogleg left him a long iron to the middle of green. He two-putted for birdie to get back within two of Nicklaus.
The 14th hole marked the halfway point of the second nine. Sandwiched between the more famous par fives, the 13th and 15th, the uphill, dogleg left hole never got any respect. It was the only hole on the course without a bunker — or any hazard for that matter — since a large fairway bunker on the right side was removed after the 1952 tournament.
The hole, which awkwardly moved to the left while the terrain sloped to the right, had not been kind to Nicklaus since bogeying it in his very first practice round here sixteen years earlier. “I always had a hard time with 14,” he admits. In his career, he had played it in eight over par. Of all the holes at Augusta National, only the 18th had been tougher on him at 10 over. One year earlier, he bogeyed it from over the green in the final round when just one off the lead.
In the fairway after a perfect drive, he had hit an 8-iron ten yards over the green on Saturday, and now thinking the wind was with him again, he chose a 9-iron. The green was the second largest on the course, but with a large rise from the front right to the back left. A third of the green was a false front, and the hole location was back right just over that incline. After he struck the 9-iron, the wind seemed to turn and the ball finished short and rolled back off the front. A frustrated Nicklaus tossed some leaves of grass into the air again after the shot. On his next shot, he used his putter but hit it too firm. It scooted just off the back of the green, sixteen feet past the hole. He left the comebacker a foot-and-a-half short. Nicklaus used his putter three times, but it was officially a one-putt green. Nicklaus felt like he’d let two shots slip away the last two holes. “I thought the tournament had gotten away from me on 13 and 14,” he admitted.
The 14th hole had been tough on this day, yielding only two birdies when the final twosome came up. Miller exacerbated its difficulty by pulling his drive into the pine trees on the left. He had hit every green in regulation to this point and showed his anger at the mistake by slamming his right fist into his left palm walking off the tee. Taking a long iron, he unsuccessfully gambled on his second shot when his ball hit more tree limbs and failed to get out of trouble. After all those birdies and stellar play, Miller looked to be throwing away his chances on this one hole. For his third shot, Miller stepped off his own yardage and decided to hit a rope-hook 7-iron around the trees. The ball bounded up the green, hit the bottom of the flagstick, and almost went in. The anything-but-routine par drew a wry smile from Weiskopf.
After a beautiful drawing 3-wood into the center of the fairway, Weiskopf hit an 8-iron that never left the flagstick to six feet in front of the hole. He rolled the putt right in and waved to the crowd as he regained the outright lead with four holes to play. To those watching, it looked like this would finally be Weiskopf’s Masters.