A Masterful Performance at Augusta

Well, we’re all 20 years younger today.

You always want Jack Nicklaus to win golf tournaments. The way you always want Ruth to get homers, Rose to get hits, Dempsey to get knockouts, Koufax strikeouts and Mays fly balls at the fence.

It brings a sense of order, stability to our world. The rest of it may be in ferment, change and chaos but you think, ‘Well, it can’t be too bad. Jack Nicklaus just won the Masters.’ It’s 1963 again and there’s no Kadafi, inflation, Central America. We’re all right, Jack.

It’s something to cling to. The recognizable, the reassuring. We’re back with the familiar, the comfortable. Tomorrow is going to have to hold off for a while.


What does the old song say? “I’d Give You a Million Tomorrows for Just One Yesterday”? Well, Jack gave us one more yesterday. Tomorrow can wait. He is not going gently into that good night. He’s going to eagle it.

Jack’s been winning this thing since the days when we didn’t need bifocals and didn’t go around wondering why people didn’t speak up any more.

I remember the first one he won. We were very annoyed at him. Here he was, this little fat kid--he was 23--beating Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer, to say nothing of Sam Snead and Tony Lema. Plus, he was so damn good. He had no idea how difficult this game was.

You have no idea how depressing it was to follow a golfer who thought every putt should go in the hole, every drive 300 yards, every iron onto a green and who wondered why they put all those funny little sand traps around a course when they didn’t come into play.


I mean, it was all too simple for Jack. Birds fly, fish swim and he made 3s.

One of the things I liked about the 1986 Masters was the way other golfers appeared human, playing the game on occasion the way you and I play it. Seve Ballesteros, supposedly the next Nicklaus, pull-hooked a ball--and the green coat--into the water on 15. Greg Norman slid that 4-iron into the customers on 18.

You never used to see Jack Nicklaus do that. At least, none of us ever remember it. Just as we never remember seeing Roberto Clemente throw to the wrong base or Willie Mays make a last out.

Jack got beat. But somebody always beat him. Somebody ran down a sea-going putt. Lee Trevino hit the pin with a shot that was on its way to the Firth of Forth.


We can remember Hogan snap-hooking it off the tee at 18 at Olympic in 1955 to lose a playoff to Jack Fleck, or Arnold Palmer scattering a seven-shot lead on the back nine in the ’66 Open there like a sailor on leave leaking money.

But you had to beat Jack Nicklaus. He didn’t do it for you.

Jack had his bad tournaments. Sometimes he finished as far down as fourth. But he never threw a tournament away on a final round or a final hole.

Winning is an art in itself. And, apparently, it’s like riding a bicycle. You never forget how. Not if you’re Jack Nicklaus.


He played golf better than anyone else. But, so, they tell us, does Ballesteros.

Winning one out of every five tournaments he ever entered worldwide, one out of every six on the tour, stamps Jack Nicklaus as an athletic marvel whose like we shall not see again. Winning 20 majors out of a possible 96 is stupefying.

Someone once said that the really astonishing thing about Jack Nicklaus was that he won so many tournaments that he didn’t care whether he won or not. It’s interesting that the last five tournaments he won were the Open, the PGA, the Colonial, the Memorial and the Masters.

That’s three majors, and you have to know that the Memorial is Jack’s own tournament, which makes it a major in his eyes, and that the Colonial is a course where you measure yourself against Hogan.


Jack can still play. But he can’t win on the interest of his talent anymore. He has to dip into the capital.

Was the 1986 Masters his most satisfying win? I doubt it. Jack has always found it galling he didn’t win more British Opens, a tournament he rescued from a downslide by his constant appearance in it. Jack won three and was second an incredible seven times.

The Masters was not that hard to win in the early days. It was a tournament you got invited to, like a cotillion in the Confederacy.

It was a happy hunting ground for venerable former winners, foreigners and amateurs, and it was not till a few of us began pointing out the inequity of inviting a foreign player like Gary Player and not a native-born tour winner like, say, Charlie Sifford, that the Masters’ braintrust wrote a rule that tour winners get invited.


Still, despite the heavy concentration of legal aliens, the Masters has become, sort of, America’s tournament, the Dallas Cowboys of golf.

It has the tried and true, the recognizable on its leader board. The star system, which works best at the box office, video or in person, is alive and well. You never see “Unknown Wins Masters” in the Monday paper.

But no one is as known as Mr. Jack Nicklaus. Mr. Golf. God must be a fan. Ballesteros had to hit the ball into the water, Greg Norman had to hit the ball into the crowd and Tom Kite had to leave two straight crucial putts short. He knew that Nicklaus could take care of the rest.

As the poet said, with Nicklaus winning the Masters, God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.