Jack Nicklaus’ magic Masters moment in 1986
Imagine a time when ESPN did not have elaborate sets on remote locations all around the world. Imagine a young reporter with only a photographer and a producer covering one of the most incredible sports stories of all time working for what is now the monolithic ESPN. Imagine they did not have “live” capability, but had to walk their raw taped reports to a satellite uplink truck to send content back to headquarters in Bristol, Conn.
I know this, because I was the reporter and the story was Sunday at the 1986 Masters.
Jack Nicklaus would shoot 65 in the final round that day. The palette was perfect on which Nicklaus would fashion his final masterpiece: beautiful blue skies, azaleas in full bloom and the cathedral pines framing the fairways of the former plant nursery. Augusta National is America’s living room. We gather in front of our televisions on a particular Sunday in April to pay homage to golf’s greatest basilica. The really lucky ones have tournament badges that probably were willed to them by a deceased relative. These folks get to actually be on the grounds to watch the tournament with their own eyes. A couple of hundred of reporters also get special invites to describe the action in various media.
Nicklaus and his sixth green jacket at Augusta has been named by Golf Magazine as golf’s greatest moment. What is not subjective is how it felt to be there. Everyone in attendance knew something almost beyond mortal had occurred; the ethereal nature of it all was palatable.
To this day, those at Augusta on April 13, 1986 can smell the flowers, feel the warm sun, feel the ground shaking and hear the roars emitted from the spectators. “Jack’s roars"— a tidal wave of sound that bounced off those big pines, up from the Rae’s Creek, through the August National clubhouse, down Magnolia Lane and dispersed throughout northeast Georgia.
All through Masters week 2016, there will be numerous tributes to the 30th anniversary of Nicklaus’ last major tournament win. He did what many thought was impossible. After all, he was 46 years old. The documentaries will chronicle how Nicklaus birdied No. 9, No. 10 and No. 11, only to bogey No. 12 and everybody thought the dream had died. Then we’ll see the eagle on 15, and Nicklaus will recall asking his caddie, his son Jackie, before the 212-yard second shot, “How far do you think a three will go here? And I don’t mean a club.” Then we’ll see the almost hole in one on 16 and the final birdie on 17.
We will see co-leader Greg Norman, paired with Nick Price, double bogey the 10th, only to make four straight birdies from 14 through 17. In a recent telephone conversation, Norman offered his perspective. “I was approaching the 14th green and I look up and see maybe 16 people behind the green and a dog and a cat and a handbag, practically nobody around,” Norman says. “I see Jack over on 17 raising his arm after making a putt. So, I turn to Nick and say, let’s show the rest of these people were are not out of this tournament.”
Norman lost his chance when he pushed his second shot right at 18 for a bogey and came up a stroke short. Throughout that afternoon Seve Ballesteros seemed to have the tournament in control, until he hit the water on 15 and three-putted 17. Tom Kite also missed a 12-footer for birdie on 18 that would have put him in a playoff. After that putt, Kite told this reporter, “It was a perfect putt. I’ve never hit a better putt. It just didn’t go in.”
It was after dark when we went back to the clubhouse and parted ways. On the way out I heard, “Alan? Alan?” from somewhere near the lockers. When I peered around the corner, there sat Nicklaus. He looked awful. “I can’t get up. My back is locked up.” He sent me to find his personal assistant, and then we helped get Nicklaus up off the bench and out the back door. He didn’t want anybody to see him like that. He shot 78 the first day and finished tied for 33rd. I couldn’t believe he could even hit the ball.
A little over two years later, the usual Sunday drama was in full display on the back nine at Augusta. Payne Stewart had been paired with Fuzzy Zoeller, five groups ahead of Nicklaus and Sandy Lyle. After he had finished, I sat down with Stewart to have lunch in the clubhouse while we both were watching the tournament on television. Stewart wound up finishing tied for eighth and we were talking about his day when I noticed the ice cubes in my sweet tea glass were jingling a bit. Then I felt the floor vibrating slightly. “Are we having an earthquake?” I asked Stewart. He said, “Look there,” pointing to the television, “Jack just eagled 15. You might want to get out there.”
I bolted from the table and attempted to make my way down the course, between the 18th fairway and 17th green. I could get no farther. The patrons were swarming their way to wherever Nicklaus was. The ground was shaking. Even vendors were abandoning their concession stands to try to take a peek. I retreated back to the clubhouse and the television, because I wasn’t going to see anything out on the grounds.
After Nicklaus putted out on 18, I met him as he left the green. He looked right at me and asked, “Where are you set up?” “Up on the back porch,” I replied. “I’ll be there,” he said. Then the officials with green jackets whisked him off in a golf cart and the world watched his competitors fall one by one until he was the only one atop the vintage leaderboard.
As I sat on the back porch swing, my producer, Lee Rosenblatt was getting quite antsy. He was pacing back and forth and kept asking me, “Is he coming, should I go find him, is he coming?”
“Jack said he’ll be here. He’ll be here,” I assured him.
We wanted to upload the tape back to Bristol for the 7 p.m. “SportsCenter.” I figured that wasn’t going to happen. It was about two hours now after the final putt and it was dark. Finally I spotted a dim beacon of light in front of the figure of a man walking up a small pathway that had been beaten down by the spectators during the week up to the back of the clubhouse. It was Nicklaus. I think he borrowed the flashlight from one of the Pinkerton guards. He was all alone.
He came up to me on the swing and sat down and said, “Do you mind if I just sit here for a while? I’ve done a lot of talking.”
So Jack and I sat there for about 15 minutes. Neither of us said a word. It was dead quiet. There wasn’t the slightest breeze. We didn’t even hear a cricket. It was eerie, looking out toward the darkened golf course. Nicklaus just sat and stared out with a look of complete serenity on his face. I wondered what was going through his mind. I’d ask him later. But for now, it was his moment, his day, his triumph to soak in. Finally, he put his hand on my knee and said, “You wanna’ do this?” I replied, nonchalantly, “Might as well.” My photographer, Jeff Israel, began to set up the lights and fire up the camera.
“Jack, before we start,” I said, “You think now might be a good time to retire?”
He said, “How’d you know I was thinking about that?” and he smiled.
Of course, Jack could not retire. His sponsors and businesses needed him to keep his name out there, especially after this supernatural Sunday. But we both knew, it would never get any better than this.
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