Cementing his place in history: Nicklaus wins 1986 Masters at 46

Cementing his place in history: Nicklaus wins 1986 Masters at 46

Jack Nicklaus made this birdie putt on the 17th hole to take the lead on Sunday.
Phil Sandlin/AP

Jack Nicklaus did not need a career-defining moment when he arrived in Augusta in the spring of 1986. His waistline was a little thick, his best days of golf were behind him. He had already built a resume of brick and granite — 17 professional major championships, two United States amateur titles, a million memories. Jack Nicklaus was royalty, even if his clubs were rusty at the age of 46, as a columnist wrote that Masters week.

Nicklaus read the story. A friend had posted it on his refrigerator at the house where Nicklaus was staying. Nicklaus never forgot it. Soon, the world wouldn’t either.

In a back nine of golf so unexpected and so surreal that grown men wept and Pinkerton guards danced, Nicklaus shot 30 in the final hours of that Masters Sunday, winning his 18th major in a moment that changed the game and cemented a legend.

Facing the next generation of golfing greats — Norman and Ballesteros, Watson and Kite — Nicklaus matched them all, shot for shot and putt for putt. No, Nicklaus outdid them, every last one of them, reaching back for the kind of magic that only he could muster and the rest could only imagine. Once more, and for the last time, Jack was back.

If Tiger Woods’s defining moment was his first major, a 12-stroke Masters blowout, Nicklaus’s was his final major, a one-stroke Masters nail-biter. It is this final triumph among the pines of Augusta that will keep Nicklaus, in the minds of many, as the greatest golfer of all time, Woods’s impressive achievements nothwithstanding.

While Woods, who has 14 majors, is closing in on Jack’s record of 18, some might argue that a man winning the Masters at 46 should count for two majors.

Nicklaus hadn’t won a major in six years when he started rolling in putts from everywhere on that Sunday. Men that age, so the thinking went, couldn’t handle their nerves on those humpbacked greens.

But that back-nine 30 reminded us what Nicklaus had been and what he still was. Birdies at 10 and 11, another at 13, an eagle at 15, and back-to-back birds at 16 and 17. Ballesteros finding water at 15. Norman pushing an iron into the crowd at 18.

Game. Set. Match. Nicklaus.

Sam Snead may have been a better player into his 40s, and Julius Boros might have been the oldest to win a major (the 1968 P.G.A. Championship at 48), but Nicklaus’s achievement changed the game because it was the story of the legend come to life.

It was like a gray Muhammad Ali decking Mike Tyson, an old Sandy Koufax striking out Manny Ramirez, an ancient Joe Montana leading a Super Bowl drive against Bill Belichick’s Patriots. But this really happened.

Nicklaus had been off the golfing map. With grown children of his own, several of them rising stars in golf, it wasn’t folly to wonder if Nicklaus was still the best player in his family.

For one more week, Nicklaus was the best golfer on the planet, long off the tee, precise with his irons, flawless with that oversized putter.

HIs win ensured that Sunday at the Masters would remain must-see TV for years to come. It gave the sports world its first glimpse of the announcer Jim Nantz at the Masters, describing at No. 16 on Sunday how Nicklaus had always found comfort on that hole. On cue, Nicklaus rifled an iron shot stiff and made birdie.

It gave the sports world Verne Lundquist’s “Yes, sir!” call on No. 17 as Nicklaus raised his putter and his ball dropped into the hole and the pines shook anew. It gave the sports world Nicklaus, the father, playing alongside his son, Jackie, his caddie that day, and all of the emotions of seeing the first family of golf stalking a course at sunset.

Today, when Vijay Singh wins majors in his 40s or Norman challenges at the British Open in his 50s, thoughts of Nicklaus at Augusta return. As Woods defies challengers and injury, it is natural to wonder if he will have his own moments in his 40s, memories carved out of the Georgia dusk, like the one from Nicklaus that is talked about still and that will be forever.