Jack's round of gold

Apr 5 2011 - 4:35pm

There was the day when Arnie birdied the last two holes to win the Masters and the day when Tiger Woods changed the color of golf's history at Augusta National Golf Club.

Then there was that springtime Sunday 25 years ago when 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus played a round of golf so sublime that it literally made grown men cry.

Nicklaus had arrived at Augusta that year, having not won a tournament in two years and he was six years removed from his last major championship victory. He was still Nicklaus the legend but his game was growing old. He had lost some of his power, the putts didn't fall in as often and his intimidation factor and a measure of his motivation had faded.

But on a warm, sunny afternoon, the game's greatest player turned in the encore of all encores on golf's most famous stage.

It was a remember-where-you-were moment even if you didn't know a 5-iron from a flamethrower.

And when it was over, the steely old Golden Bear, wrapped an arm around his 24-year-old son and caddie, Jackie, backlit by a setting sun and an eternal glow.

If you were there, you'll never forget the energy in the April air those last two hours when Nicklaus was making birdies like he was young again.

You remember how it felt, building from the moment Nicklaus joked about the roars he heard behind him and told the gallery gathered around the ninth green that it was time to make their own noise. He proceeded to hole a birdie putt that unleashed one of the rumbles that seem to shake the trees around Augusta National when the Masters is in full bloom.

It was a day when thousands broke one of Augusta National's most sacred rules for patrons--no running. But it was impossible not to, especially when Jack marched down the 11th fairway and into the three-hole swing through Amen Corner, stalking leader Seve Ballesteros. It felt like the faithful hurrying into a revival, pulled by a spirit they couldn't refuse.

A COMPELLING DRAMA

Lee Trevino was in the Atlanta airport drinking double scotches, having already finished his final round and begging -- along with others -- the airline to hold the plane until the story had ended. Tom Watson was watching it from the pairing behind Nicklaus on that final afternoon, trying not to pay attention to what was happening in front of him until it became impossible to ignore.

Even now, Nicklaus said people constantly remind him of where they were on April 13, 1986.

"I don't care where I go, I always run into somebody (who says), 'I was in an airport and...I cancelled my flight and sat there and watched it because I couldn't leave' or 'I had to stop this or I had to stop that.' Amazing, the number of people who have told me those kinds of stories."

It was only later that the tender details emerged. Jack's mother, Helen, was there, the first time she had attended the Masters since Nicklaus had played his first one 27 years earlier. For Nicklaus' sister, Marilyn, it was the first time she ever saw her brother play Augusta.

The yellow shirt Nicklaus wore that day came as a suggestion from his wife, Barbara, who reminded him of the 13-year-old son of her minister. The boy had died but he'd told Jack once that he seemed to play his best golf in a yellow shirt on Sunday.

Sunday at Augusta is the best day in golf. It's the rare day that dawns promising a bit of history will be made. It has been eight months since the last major championship and it returns annually to a place cloaked in dogwood blossoms and head-high stands of azaleas blooming pink and purple.

When it begins with Greg Norman in the lead, trailed closely by many of the best players of their generation--Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Nick Price, Watson and Nicklaus, the day dawns with a tremble of anticipation.

ARTICLE WRITES HIM OFF

Prior to the Masters, Nicklaus's best finish in his limited 1986 schedule had been a tie for 39th in Hawaii. He had literally been written off in an Atlanta newspaper story that said he was too old to win and his clubs had rusted. The story had been jokingly taped to the refrigerator door in the house he was renting that week.

That Sunday afternoon played out like a Capra movie. Ballesteros, with his movie star looks and Spanish bravado, was in position to win his third Masters, not realizing the imminent disappointment would change the course of his career.

Tom Kite, who built a Hall of Fame career on hard work, was there and so was Norman, who fell back early then finished with a rush, four straight birdies only to see another dream die, this time caused by a flared 4-iron from the final fairway.

Twenty-five years later, the action and its impact remains compelling. There were Jack's three straight birdies starting at the ninth, his bogey at 12, his birdie at 13, the eagle at 15, the near ace at 16 and a final, clinching birdie at 17.

It was a day when Ballesteros slumped atop the hill in the 15th fairway as he watched his 4-iron second shot dive into the water on the par-5 while a portion of the crowd cheered his misfortune. It sent Kite to his knees when his tying putt missed on the 18th green and it left Norman, his lips as white as his hair, to clear the gallery to the right of the 18th green after throwing away his chance to win.

Snippets of dialogue added to the drama.

Jack asking Jackie, his son and caddie, "How far do you think a three would go here?" before hitting his second shot to the 15th green to set up an eagle that brought Nicklaus within a stroke of the lead and made the improbable suddenly real.

Jackie saying, "Be right," as he watched his father's 5-iron tee shot at the par-3 16th.

His father softly answering, "It is," as he leaned over to pick up his tee while the ball was in flight, relying on his son's younger eyes and a gallery's roar to let him know his ball had stopped 3 feet from the hole.

'MAYBE ....YES SIR!'

Announcer Verne Lundquist saying, "Maybe . . . Yes sir!" when Nicklaus holed his birdie putt at the 17th hole, then waved his broad-headed putter like a saber toward the hole.

By the time Nicklaus reached the 18th hole with four groups still playing behind him, he had a one-stroke lead and what felt like the world watching.

Fans ringed the 18th green a dozen deep, many standing on their toes to catch a glimpse of the golden moment.

When Nicklaus had finished his closing 65, two-putting for a par from 40 feet away on the final green, CBS announcer Pat Summerall, calling the action, was too overcome to speak.

Tom Watson remembers standing in the 18th fairway watching Nicklaus finish. Having lost his chance to win, Watson thought about all that had happened in front of him that day as Nicklaus put an arm around his son, Jackie.

"I was watching from the fairway and I could see that hug," Watson said. "It was really special. I remember thinking wouldn't it be great to have had my son on the bag when I won the Masters."

Nicklaus had closed with magic, shooting 30 on the back nine--as good a closing nine as anyone has played--to win a major championship, the 18th of his career.

The cheers he heard while climbing the hill up to the 18th green must have sounded like an angels' choir to Nicklaus, who had been fighting back tears for the final hour.

When he had finished all he could do, he walked into the scoring booth, his arm around his son.

He will return to Augusta this week where he will attend the annual champions dinner in the clubhouse on Tuesday night, play the par-3 tournament on Wednesday with one of his grandchildren as his caddie and hit a ceremonial tee shot with Arnold Palmer early Thursday morning to start the Masters. Then, if he sticks to the schedule he's kept since he played his final Masters six years ago, Nicklaus, 71, will fly away and leave the Masters to be played by others.

He's had his day.

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THE MASTERS

Where: Augusta National Golf Club

Defending champion: Phil Mickelson

Wednesday: 3-5 p.m. ESPN (Par-3 contest)

Thursday: 3-7:30 p.m., ESPN (replay 8-11 p.m.); Highlights 11:35-11:50 p.m., CBS

Friday: 3-7:30 p.m., ESPN (replay 8-11 p.m.); Highlights 11:35-11:50 p.m., CBS

Saturday: 3:30-7 p.m., CBS

Sunday: 2-7 p.m., CBS

FIVE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

One year after returning to golf following a break because of personal problems, Tiger Woods returns to the Masters without a victory in 18 months. Woods hasn't won the Masters since 2005.

A year ago, Phil Mickelson won an emotional Masters, capturing his third green jacket. Until winning Sunday in Houston, he'd struggled and temporarily dropped out of the top five in the world rankings.

Martin Kaymer won the last major played--the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits--and has since ascended to No. 1 in the world. However, he's played three Masters and never made the cut.

A new generation of young stars has emerged, led by Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy and Francesco Molinari. Is it their time?

There have been no major changes to Augusta National, just a couple of small tweaks. But the course, rated No. 1 in the world in the new Golf Digest rankings, remains at the heart of the story.

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