Shortly before Jack Nicklaus walked out of the Augusta National clubhouse for the final round of the 1963 Masters, a friend asked the 54-hole leader, "How do you feel today, Jack? Big and strong?"
"Yeah, big and strong and tough and mean," Nicklaus replied.
The well-mannered 23-year-old was laughing when he said it, but that's how he played Augusta that week: ripping drives 40 yards past his rivals, routinely reaching par 5s in two, and reading greens as though they'd come with Cliffs Notes. By day's end, Nicklaus had withstood a charge from a 50-year-old Sam Snead to win his first green jacket and his second major, having defeated Arnold Palmer 10 months earlier in a U.S. Open playoff . The young Bear had his first coat, establishing himself as his era's player to beat. His dominance was "as overwhelming and inevitable as nightfall," Alfred Wright wrote in Sports Illustrated. "He is obviously too strong, too determined, too skillful to be sidetracked or delayed."
Fifty years later, Nicklaus has few memories from his maiden Masters win. What stands out is the soggy third round that taught him the value of tenacity. "I played with Mike Souchak, who was leading by 1, and it was pouring rain," recalls Nicklaus, 73. "No one thought we were gonna finish." Back then, if inclement weather canceled the day's play, "you washed out the whole round," Nicklaus says. "But they didn't call it. At the 18th green, I looked at the leaderboard, and I saw several 1s and 2s. I'm color-blind, so I said to my caddie, Willie Peterson, 'How many of those numbers are red?' He said, 'Just you, boss.'" Nicklaus was leading, at 2-under. "That surprised me, because all I did was persevere, and I ended up in the lead. Souchak shot a 79 because he didn't think we'd finish. I shot 74, which is not exactly tearing up the course, but to learn that patience at 23 was something I was proud of."
Winning also taught Nicklaus how best to prepare for a major, though the lesson didn't sink in right away. "In 1962, I played [the Greater Greensboro Open] the week before and didn't play well at the Masters," he says. "In '63, I didn't go to Greensboro and I won the Masters." He would repeat the pattern in the coming years, falling short at Augusta when he played the week prior (1964) and grabbing the green jacket when he used that week to practice on the course (1965 and '66). "Nothing against Greensboro, but I figured out that going to a course early is essential if you want to consistently win big championships."
Young Jack had another edge: brute strength. "I had a power advantage over other players, and that was a tremendous advantage to have at Augusta, where you could just whale on it. And I had the ability to add another 30, 40 yards if I needed it. I took advantage of my power advantage more there than I did on any other course."
A half century and five more green jackets later, Nicklaus is asked if the Masters is his favorite major. "My national championship is No. 1, but the Masters is very special—like Wimbledon is to tennis. I always had a love affair with Augusta, and when you love something, you play pretty well."