Tuesday, April 3, 2012

It’s a true honor and thrill for us at Allen Edmonds to work with Jack Nicklaus.  As you’d expect of the greatest golf champion of all time, he’s exacting and uncompromising – just as we like it.  He’s also refreshingly approachable, and genuinely interested both in Allen Edmonds and in us as individuals.  I’ve always admired him, having inherited the golf bug at a very early age from my dad.  The more important aspect of golf that I got from my dad was how to behave on the course (a tossed club was grounds for a long, lonely walk back to the car) and what it means to be a good sport.  Jack, a gracious champion whether winning or finishing in second place, was always at the top of my dad’s very short list of “approved sports idols.”

Like many guys my age, I consider the greatest and most memorable golf victory of all time to be Jack’s 1986 win at the Masters.  In growing excitement and disbelief, I watched it all unfold, stroke by stroke, on the back nine that Sunday (CBS didn’t show the front nine in those days).  For the first hour, I thought Norman, Watson, Kite or Ballesteros – accomplished players in their primes – would pull away from 46 year old Jack.  The opposite happened – each of them faltered as Nicklaus charged to his record 18th professional major victory (20th, including the 2 U.S. Amateur wins).  He shot 65 for the round with an amazing 30 (6 under par) on the back nine that epic day.  The win made him the oldest winner ever of the Masters, and Golf World called it the “greatest final round in major championship history.”

By April of 1986, Nicklaus hadn't won a major tournament in six years.  In 1985, he had tied for sixth at Augusta, but then missed the cut at both the U.S. and British Opens and tied for 32nd at the PGA Championship.  Some golf writers had pronounced his career all but finished, except for the farewell sunset tour.  In fact, one article stating as much had appeared in March of ‘86 and Jack had it taped on the refrigerator for motivation.

Jack’s son Jackie was his caddy that week – a perfect sentimental backdrop for any fan whose dad was the reason that he ever started chasing a small white sphere across acres of otherwise valuable waterfront, suburbia or farmland.  Jack started the final round back in 9th place and shot a routine even par over the first eight holes.  A missed birdie putt at the par 3 sixth hole could have derailed another golfer’s train.  As Jackie described it, “There were so many important golf shots that day. One that I recall that was never written about was the par-3 6th green.  I want to say Dad hit a 6-iron in there to the back left and hit an incredibly good shot in there, I want to say two feet from the cup, and then he missed the putt.”  To add more pressure onto that miss, Ballesteros and Kite both made eagles at the uphill, blind approach Par 5 8th hole a few minutes later.  The roar from the crowd on 8 caused Jack to step away as he readied his birdie putt on the 9th hole, having missed another birdie opportunity himself at the 8th: “We better get going if we are going to do something,” he had told Jackie while walking to the 9th tee.  And, when he stepped back to the ball, he drained it and thus finally began the momentum that he’d take to the back nine.

The conventional wisdom is that the Masters can be lost before the last nine holes, but it is won on the back nine on Sunday.  Here is an account in Jack’s own words, with a few comments tossed in by a certain longtime fan…

Hole 10 (Camellia) 485 yards, par 4“I hit my drive to the right of fairway and into the gallery. It hit a spectator but left me with a 4-iron to the green. I holed a 25-foot putt for another birdie.” He would go to 4-under-par and trail the leader Ballesteros by four shots.  It’s said that the TV doesn’t do justice to the changes of elevations at Augusta.  It’s really true, and the 10th hole is the most dramatic example.  The 10th fairway would make a nice ski run, with its steep downhill slope from the tee all the way until about 100 yards from the green.  Jack’s natural fade doesn’t set up so well for this right-to-left dogleg.  A power draw down the steep hill can add 50 yards to the tee shot and leave anywhere from a 6-9 iron into the green.  So, a four-iron approach to still make birdie on a multi-sloping green is incredible.

Hole 11 (White Dogwood) 455 yards, par 4 – A solid drive to fairway followed by a strong 8-iron brought Jack a 20-foot putt that he drilled for birdie 3.  This hole, with its narrow green and the pond to the left, is usually played conservatively to the right to avoid kicking into the pond and posting a big number.  Jack’s third birdie in a row here suggested destiny’s hand at work.  Now, he was within two shots of the Ballesteros lead.  He was greeted at the 12th tee - the beguiling par-3 in the middle element of Amen Corner - with a standing ovation.

Hole 12 (Golden Bell) 155 yards, par 3. "I hit a firm 7-iron over the green. I chipped it well, but my par putt hit a spike mark. It sounds silly but it got me going.” Jack bogeyed and fell back within four shots of the leaders, who made birdies on the previous holes.  But, again, his quote says everything about the mind of this champion.  How many times have we seen today’s pros stomp a foot and bang down a spike mark after a putt doesn’t go in?  For Jack, it just “got me going.”

Hole 13 (Azalea) 465 yards, par 5. “From experience, I knew that I didn’t need to hit a driver – the ball was going a long way. I hit a 3-wood around the corner, 3-iron and nearly made the 3-foot putt for an eagle.”   He moved to three shots off the lead, but it should have been an eagle.  Again, no stomping, wincing or putter flipped onto the bag.  He still looked like he was enjoying the action.  Oh, and how many times since then have we seen pros pound a driver into the trees beyond the fairway?   Hitting 3-wood was a very smart play.

Hole 14 (Chinese Fir) 405 yards, par 4. "I took another 3 wood and hit the fairway. My 6 iron stopped on the back fringe. I have had that chip 100 times.”   He hit six --this was the era before multi-layered, perfectly-tuned golf balls.  Today’s pros bomb it about 300 yards up the steep hill, and then hit one of their four wedges into that hole.  I’m more impressed by a six iron, personally, but by now you know I’m a golf traditionalist.  Jack chipped to one foot and made the par putt. He was 4 strokes behind as Seve posted his second eagle of the round at 13.

Hole 15 (Firethorn) 500 yards, par 5. "I absolutely nailed the drive and had 202 yards left into a touch of a breeze.” His 4-iron rested 12 feet from the cup. He sank the putt for an eagle 3. Jack was now within two shots of leader Ballesteros. “I knew I had a chance,” Jack thought. CBS Golf analyst Ben Wright concurred: “Yes sir! The battle is joined. My goodness. There is life in the old Bear yet!”

Hole 16 (Redbud) 170 yards, par 3.  His 5 iron was on the flag. With the ball in flight, Jackie implored it to "be right." His father answered calmly, "It is.” It was hit absolutely stiff, but left a 3-foot putt “with a nasty break of about 18 inches.” Jack rolled it in for birdie to Jim Nantz’s call: “And there is no doubt about it, the Bear has come out of hibernation.”  Jack was suddenly within one shot of the lead.  Here’s a tip of the hat to CBS, whose commercial-light Masters coverage is always so well done.  Tom Weiskopf -- who followed Nicklaus with a brilliant collegiate career at Ohio State and was the first of many men burdened with the moniker, “the next Nicklaus” -- was in the booth above 16 in 1986.  When Ben Wright asked him as Jack waggled over his “be right” tee shot, “What’s he thinking right now?”, Weiskopf responded wistfully, “If I knew that, I would have won this tournament a couple of times.”  A great line.

Heading to the 17th tee, Jack heard "an unusual sound" coming from the 15th hole as Ballesteros hit a heavy 4-iron into the pond fronting the green and made bogey where Nicklaus had recently made his eagle.  Ballesteros’ body language suggested that he knew that he had just blown his chance to win.

Hole 17 (Nandina) 400 yards, par 4  “I drove to the fairway, and made a good swing with a pitching wedge that landed 10 feet from the pin.”  Jack asked Jackie to read the putt and he saw a break in it that Jack knew from experience was an optical illusion. Jack knew the putt broke the other way, toward the creek, and he hit it exactly along his read.  Verne Lundquist made the call as Jack already was raising his putter now famously in the air (see the picture above): “Maybe...YES SIR!” as Jack drilled it into the hole to take sole possession of the lead for the first time in the tournament.  I saw this putt replayed yet again this weekend as CBS advertised this year’s Masters broadcast, with Jim Nantz’s now trademark line over the visual—“The Masters.  A tradition like no other.” 

Hole 18 (Holly) 405 yards, par 4. I’m sure there were countless people who, like I did to my wife that day, shouted to somebody in the house, “Hey, you gotta come watch this!  Jack Nicklaus just took the lead and might win the Masters.”  To which her response was, “What?!  Really?!”  I moved a lot closer to the TV screen and to the edge of my chair.

Jack again left the driver in the bag to keep the fairway bunkers from being in play. His bombed 3-wood tee shot absolutely split the middle of the fairway. He hit a 5-iron to the green -- ok, again, a 5 iron, not 7, not 8… 5.  It faced a sudden gust of wind and stayed on the lower level, 40-feet from the hole.  I thought to myself, “This is going to be a tough two-putt with the tournament on the line.”  Coolly, confidently, Jack putted it firmly and, having read the break, the grain, and the pace perfectly again, sent the ball 39 feet 8 inches up over the ridge, leaving just 4 inches for a tap-in par.  Then Jack waited in the Jones Cabin to see who might catch him.

Ballesteros three-putted the 17th to fall two shots back. Tom Kite missed a makeable putt that would have been a tying birdie at the finishing hole.  And then Norman, who amazingly had made four consecutive birdies to catch Nicklaus, and with almost all of the patrons now lining that 18th fairway, fanned his approach to 18 into the masses, far right.  His pitch was impressive, but left him about a makeable 20 footer for the tie.  It rolled by, he made bogey and the Nicklaus father-son team was shown in the cabin in subdued but clearly personally emotional celebration.

Nicklaus was a nine-under 279 champion, seven of those nine shots under par came on the last 10 holes … at age forty-six, hitting  4, 5, and 6 irons hit into incredibly beguiling greens.  Amazing. 

The win also gave him a record six Masters victories -- his first was 23 years earlier in 1963.  His first professional major win was the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont, in Arnold Palmer’s backyard. The 23 years between Masters victories and 24 years between majors are also records.

“You can’t really rank them,” Jack has said, “But I think it’s obvious that that one stands out, simply because most of the other ones were during the bulk or the basic part of my career, and I expected to win.

I guess nobody really expected me to be in contention at that point in my career, particularly even me. I had not really prepared all that great for it that spring. But once I got myself in contention, muscle memory and knowing how to play golf came back.

It was an amazing event and a special golf tournament. My mother, my sister being there. All the things that went on that week as a family are far more important and what I remember more than the golf."

In his recent book, “The 1986 Masters: How Jack Nicklaus Roared Back to Win,” John Boyette, the sports editor of The Augusta Chronicle, quoted Nicklaus saying as much.

“I think what it did was put an exclamation point on my career,” Nicklaus told Boyette. “I think I obviously had a pretty good career prior to that, and then to turn around at 46 and be able to finish a golf tournament, people said, ‘Hey, he can still play golf.’ ”