The Bear’s Last Roar

Not only was the 1986 Masters, by almost everybody’s reckoning, the “greatest” Masters. It was also the most “memorable.”

Television had a lot to do with that. Jack Nicklaus had even more.


Most of the highlights from Nicklaus’ 18th and final major championship victory are burned into the memories of those who played in it, attended it or watched it on TV. And there is very little that happened that week at Augusta National that hasn’t been hashed, re-hashed, written and re-written in the 25 years since the 46-year-old “bear came out of hibernation” at the 50th Masters.

But there are a few relevant stories, observations and recollections that have stayed mostly private. Until now.

Like, for example, Andrew Magee swearing at Nicklaus. Blasphemy, you say? Well, here’s how that one went down:

It was no secret that Nicklaus arrived at Augusta in poor form. He had missed the cuts at Pebble Beach, Honda and The Players Championship earlier in the 1986 season and had withdrawn at New Orleans. His most common complaint was that his aging eyes were starting to affect his focus.

Magee saw it differently. Paired with Nicklaus during a tournament round prior to The Masters, Magee was at once exasperated and awed when Nicklaus kept saying, “Where’d it go? Where’d it go?” after almost every shot. Finally, Magee turned to Nicklaus and answered him saltily with this observation: “Right at the bleeping hole, just like every other shot you hit.”

Magee later related this story to fellow PGA Tour pro Brandel Chamblee, who has since ascended to the top tier of televised golf analysis.

“Jack knew how well he was hitting it when he got to Augusta,” Chamblee said. “I mean who hits a 4-iron like he did on Sunday at 13? Who hits a 5-iron like Jack did at 16? … Mind boggling.”

The problem, said Chamblee, who watched the 1986 final round from a hotel room with buddies in Joplin, Mo., where he was playing in a mini-tour event, was that Jack couldn’t get the ball in the hole. Even during the Saturday 69 that brought him nearer the leaders, Nicklaus didn’t make many putts of consequence.

But by the time Nicklaus got to the par-3 16th Sunday, he knew exactly where he was (the first page of the leaderboard) and where his golf ball was going. It was his 28th Masters, and when son Jackie, on the bag, said, “Be right,” as his 5-iron was in the air, Nicklaus winked and without looking said, “It is.”

That story has since been handed down through at least one generation and into golf lore. But Chamblee didn’t hear about it until one week later when Jackie Nicklaus, still trying to make his own mark as a player, showed up at the TPA event in Arkansas. There, the younger Nicklaus was promptly and exhaustively de-briefed by his friends on that Tour.

The subsequent birdie at 16 got Nicklaus to 8-under par (he would win with a back-nine 30 for a closing 65 and a 9-under total) and it introduced much of the golf world to a young announcer named Jim Nantz, sharing that hole’s tower with Tom Weiskopf.

Nantz was on a short leash that week because he hadn’t yet earned the trust of the legendary and hard-nosed CBS golf producer Frank Chirkinian. Chirkinian recently succumbed after a long fight with cancer. And in the aftermath of his passing, Nantz shared, on Golf Channel, the intimate details of what was going on behind the camera when Nicklaus got to 16.

“It was a pretty weighty assignment and I can remember Frank whispering so gently in my ear and almost lulling me into a trance to where I felt like he was only talking to me,” Nantz said. “I had completely lost sight of the fact that millions were watching and we were sitting on one of the largest moments in the history of the sport. I would just love to be able to replay that whole interaction.”

CBS announcer Verne Lundquist’s exclamatory, “Maybe. . . . Yes, sir!” call of Nicklaus’ birdie on 17 has been replayed millions of times. Tour veteran Jason Gore had a copy made of the broadcast. And he pulls the tape out every spring.

Far fewer people remember that Greg Norman birdied 14, 15, 16 and 17 before a pushed 4-iron second on the 72d hole led to the bogey that kept him from a playoff with Nicklaus.

“No way he’s gonna birdie those holes and get back into it,” Chamblee says now. “No way Seve (Ballesteros) is going to snap hook it into the water on 15. But that’s the beauty of Augusta National: The holes are so close together that the roars affect the outcome. Jack’s birdie on 16 as Seve was playing 15 affected the tournament.”

Chamblee also took note when Norman “ran” off the green at 17. “You wondered how the guy could keep his emotions in check. Turns out he was as pumped up as the rest of us.”

And it cost him. Norman would finish in a tie for second with Tom Kite at 8 under. Almost no one remembers the gorgeous roll Kite put on his 10-foot birdie try on the 18th that would have gotten him into a playoff with Nicklaus. “He hit a great putt,” Chamblee says. “It just didn’t break. It was one of those putts nobody reads it correctly.”

Between them, Kite and Norman played in 49 Masters, posting a combined 21 top 10s and six seconds. Neither ever won at Augusta. Nicklaus played in 45 Masters, finished in the top 10 a remarkable 22 times and placed second on four occasions. He won The Masters six times.

Another occurrence lost on most observers was the Saturday 63 Nick Price signed for at the 1986 Masters. It tied the tournament record. More significantly, it showed anybody who was paying attention that a low number Sunday, when tournament officials traditionally soften the setup, was available.

Chamblee: “If you’re Jack Nicklaus and you see a number like that (63), you say, ‘Now wait a minute, I’m better than Nick Price.’ ”

Price’s 63 clearly figured into Nicklaus’ thinking during a Sunday morning conversation with son Steve when he predicted a 65 would win and a 66 would get him into a playoff.

“Just go shoot it, then,” Steve Nicklaus said.

Jack did. And won.

Doesn’t matter now that few remember the winner’s share of the purse was $144,000 or that Nicklaus complemented the victory with a subsequent T5 at his Memorial Tournament that year and a T8 at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.

For this one Sunday in April the sports world rejoiced unabashedly. Rick Reilly, working for Sports Illustrated at the time, called the story “too big to write.” Now, especially since the brakes got slammed on the bullet train that used to be Tiger Woods’ career, the 1986 Masters looks even bigger.

Last month, a 71-year-old Jack Nicklaus sat with a group of reporters near his Florida home. The 1986 Masters came up. Like it always does. And Nicklaus reminisced and amazed. Like he always does.

“I felt like when I birdied nine I was decent,” he said of the final day. “Birdied 10, started to feel better. I birdied 11 and I felt like I was in the golf tournament. That’s about the way I looked at it. And then I got out of the golf tournament at the next hole and bogeyed 12. And, of course, I birdied 13, and when I eagled 15, I knew I was in the middle of it.”

Could he remember what clubs he hit into the greens, somebody asked.

“Every significant club,” he said. “I mean, I don’t remember what I hit at nine but I remember the putt certainly. I don’t remember what I hit on 10 but I remember the putt. I don’t remember what I hit on 11 but I remember the putt, and I hit a 7-iron into 12 and played a 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 a pitching wedge at 17 and I hit 5-iron at 18.

“But outside of that,” Nicklaus said, “I can’t remember.”

Fair enough and no worries. The 1986 Masters remains the one no one who saw it will ever forget.

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