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Day of glory for golden oldie: Jack Nicklaus wins 1986 Masters at 46

1986 Sports Illustrated Masters cover, Jack Nicklaus
Nicklaus appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated after his victory.

This article on Jack Nicklaus's win at the 1986 Masters first appeared in the April 30, 1986, issue of Sports Illustrated.

That arm. Who could forget that arm? In the roar of roars at the 18th green, from behind a Masters scoreboard glittering with the names of golf's power brokers—BALLESTEROS and WATSON and LANGER and KITE—under the sign that said No. 18, beside the huge black letters that read NICKLAUS, next to a red 9, came the arm that had put that number there, the arm that seconds before had placed a red 8 next to NORMAN, and that arm was pumping furiously.

No head, no body, no shoulder, just an arm belonging to the leader-board man, pumping and pumping for pure, wallowing joy. To hell with employee objectivity. Jack Nicklaus had just won the Masters, once again, and that arm just couldn't help itself. If it was Old St. Nick who had delivered the goodies; if it was the Ancient One who had posted that birdie at 17, then parred 18, while Greg Norman had taken out his Fore!-iron and mailed the gallery a souvenir on the same hole; if it was the Olden Bear who had mystically come from five shots and a couple of decades back to hijack the Masters golf tournament, then it was that arm behind the scoreboard that was telling us what it meant.

Can't you see? That red 9 set off an avalanche of history. Jack Nicklaus, a 46-year-old antique, had won his 20th major golf championship, his first green jacket in 11 years, his sixth over three decades and all in this, the 50th, and arguably the best, Masters.

How complete, how whole this was for Nicklaus. Hadn't he been duped out of that 20th long ago? Hadn't Tom Watson's chip taken the U.S. Open from him at Pebble Beach in 1982 and broken his spirit? How many times had he led a major only to have his pocket picked at the end? Now the spikes were on the other foot. Here was Nicklaus, in one swell swoop, reaching down from another era and snatching a major championship from the reigning czars of this one. It is a trick no other golf god has pulled, not Palmer or Hogan or Snead or Sarazen. Nicklaus had beaten young men at a young man's game on young men's greens and beaten them when they were at their youthful best. As Tom Kite, destiny's orphan, put it, "I hit nearly every shot the way I dreamed about today. But that's the strange thing about golf. You don't have any control about what your opponent does."

And just in the Nicklaus of time, too. Who else but Jack could save us from the woeful, doleful bowl full of American Express (do-you-know-me?) golf winners of late? And who else could play John Wayne, riding in to rescue the Yanks from golf's rampaging foreign legion: the dashingly handsome Seve Ballesteros of Spain; the stone-faced Bernhard Langer of West Germany; Australia's Norman, he of the colossal swing and larger-still reputation, more unfulfilled now than ever; and Zimbabwean- South African-Floridian Nick Price, who on Saturday broke the course record that had gone unsurpassed for 46 years, then on Sunday recoiled in the giant shadow of what he had done.

Here had come Nicklaus, an American legend still under warranty, armed with a putter the size of a Hoover attachment, denting the back of Augusta's holes with 25-foot putts at an age when most guys are afraid to take the putter back. Here had come Nicklaus, sending such a deluge of decibels into the Georgia air that lakes rippled and azaleas blushed; starting such a ruckus that grown men climbed trees, children rode on shoulders, concession-stand operators abandoned their posts, all just to tear off a swatch of history. Was that Jack in the checked pants and yellow shirt? Hmmmm. Yellow goes nice with green, doesn't it, Jack? You devil.

Maybe that was it. Maybe Nicklaus had drawn up a contract with Lucifer for one last major, for that slippery 20th that had eluded him since 1980, for a sixth green blazer. In exchange, Nicklaus would do pro-ams in Hades the rest of his days.

What else could explain it? How else to explain the guy in 160th place on the money list, just one spot behind Don Halldorson, winning the Masters? How else to explain a man who hadn't won in two years charging back the last day, going seven under for the final 10 holes, sculpting a 30 that tied the Masters record for the back nine — winding up with a sporty 65 as he roared past eight players and won? This is a guy who missed the cut at the Honda, for the love of Hogan. In fact, Nicklaus missed the cut in three of seven tournaments this year and withdrew from a fourth. Of the ones he finished, his most impressive showing was a tie for 39th at the Hawaiian Open, which didn't exactly throw a scare into Corey Pavin, who won. The $144,000 for winning the Masters means he's up to $148,404 for the year. Nicklaus goes through more than that in limo tips.

The man is older than Pete Rose, for crying out loud. He has played in more Masters (28) than Pavin has lived years (26). When Nicklaus won his first Masters, in 1963, Norman was eight years old, Ballesteros and Langer five. Nicklaus either signed his soul away or is angling for an endorsement contract with Efferdent.

"I read in the Atlanta paper this week that 46-year-olds don't win Masters," said Nicklaus. "I kind of agreed. I got to thinking. Hmmm. Done, through, washed up. And I sizzled for a while. But I said to myself, I'm not going to quit now, playing the way I'm playing. I've played too well, too long to let a shorter period of bad golf be my last."

More remarkable in all this comeback talk was the fact that rumors were flying that Nicklaus had been missing some serious greens, and not just the kind you take a Toro to. "My company was a mess," Nicklaus says.

In an effort to improve the fortunes of his own company, Golden Bear International, Nicklaus let the contract of his chief executive officer, Chuck Perry, lapse seven months ago and assumed day-to-day control of the business himself. "Chuck worked very hard for me," says Nicklaus, "but he wanted to build an empire. He was sending out p.r. releases talking about a $300 million empire and all that stuff. But I don't want an empire. What am I going to do with an empire? I've got five kids, a beautiful wife and I'm hoping on some grandkids. That's what I care about."

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