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Masters Moments: Jack's final triumph trumps them all, 1986

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Phil Mickelson had just ended more than a decade of derision. The green jacket, which he would wear to bed that night, still decorated his body.

After a career of futility at the Grand Slam events, Lefty had just shot 31 on the back nine at the 2004 Masters to win his first major title, fending off Ernie Els as the course produced flocks of birdies and eagles.

It was perhaps the most memorable Masters ever, at least one guy opined aloud. Not so fast, Mickelson said. Grinning and giddy or not, Mickelson hadn't completely lost his sense of history, despite his prideful sense of self.

"I don't think any Masters will ever compare to the '86 Masters," he said.

For anybody old enough to have played with a wooden club, or for those who remotely grasp Jack Nicklaus' position in the hierarchy of the game, the 1986 Masters is the major championship by which all others will forever be measured.

They might as well bronze the yardstick. Comparisons are futile.

Tiger Woods was 10 years old and watched as the man to whom he would be inextricably linked turned back not just the hands of the clock, but entire calendar pages, to win at age 46. Moments after Woods won the 2001 Masters title to complete the greatest feat of the modern era -- holding all four majors at the same time -- he recalled the Nicklaus achievement wistfully.

"My first recollections of this tournament was when Jack won in 1986," Woods said. "I was 10 years old at the time. But I do remember the shots he hit."

Age aside, join the club, dude.

It's hard to know where to begin, with either the background or the images that remain seared into the minds of millions. Nicklaus had won 17 majors when he tooled up Magnolia Lane nearly a quarter-century ago at 46, but as far as the Masters was concerned, he had literally been written off. A story in the Atlanta paper said exactly that.

Famously, one of Nicklaus' guests in their rented house that week posted it on the refrigerator for all to see. Nicklaus' famous blue eyes saw it every morning. But wanting to make somebody eat their words, and having the competitive cutlery to accomplish it, are wholly different kitchen items.

"I kept thinking all week, 'Through, washed up, huh?'" Nicklaus said. "I sizzled for a while. But then 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."

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Nicklaus hadn't won a major since 1980, when he claimed the U.S. Open and PGA titles. Even then, they ranked as mild surprises, since he had fallen off the face of the earth in 1979, his first winless season in 17 years. Frankly, when J.W. Nicklaus began the final round at Augusta in 1986 a distant four shots behind Greg Norman, whose career at Augusta had a decidedly different directory, few really noticed.

Two hours later, as rookie broadcaster Jim Nantz described it, "the earth shook." Nicklaus had 12 players in front of him when he started the back nine, though the rally really started with a 10-foot birdie on No. 9. He birdied three of the first four holes on the back, though his bogey at No. 12 seemed like a dagger at the time.

As he stood in the 15th fairway, he asked his caddie and eldest son, Jackie, "How far do you think an eagle would go right now?" Minutes later, he rolled in a 12-footer to fulfill the prophecy. By then, the crowd was going berserk. If louder roars have ever been heard at Augusta, it would be hard to prove.

Nantz was in the tower for CBS at the 16th hole when Nicklaus nearly holed his tee shot on the par-3. When he made the short birdie putt moments later, Nantz memorably said, "The bear has come out of hibernation."

Nicklaus birdied the 17th too, raising his putter overhead in an indelible memory as the ball rolled in from 12 feet. Vern Lundquist yelled into his CBS microphone, "Yes, sir!"

Nicklaus two-putted from about 40 feet on the 18th and walked to the scoring center as the fans tried to keep their heads from exploding. Even the typically staid Pinkerton security guards were patting him on the back and going bonkers.

He had shot 30 on the back nine, blowing past everybody in a delirious, two-hour blur. It wasn't truly over until Norman, playing behind Nicklaus on the pairing sheet, badly fanned his approach into the gallery at the 18th -- the beginnings of doggedly bad mojo that would haunt the Aussie at the Masters forever.

Defending champion Bernhard Langer helped Nicklaus slip into the green jacket for a record sixth time a few minutes later. To this day, memories of the nearly inconceivable accomplishment by the Golden Bear, who turned 70 this year, give many a lump in their throat. The fact that his son was on the bag made it even more heartwarming.

"The affection Jackie and I then showed each other seems to have become one of the sport's most indelible moments, and it will surely remain one of my most cherished memories through all of my remaining days," Nicklaus said later.

Nantz, only 26, was hustling back to the CBS television compound afterward when lead analyst Ken Venturi happened by in a cart and asked him to hop in. Venturi asked Nantz, a Masters rookie, to reveal his age.

"I am going to make a prediction," Venturi said. "You are going to be the first guy ever to broadcast 50 of these one day. But I will tell you one thing. You will never live to see a day greater than this around Augusta National."

Nantz wasn't sure quite what to say.

"I was left with a mix of emotions," Nantz said, laughing. "I mean, I was just happy that he knew my name and thought I had a modicum of talent, because he thinks I'm going to do 50 of these."

Then a second thought occurred to him.

It's all downhill from here.

"That meant he was also saying," Nantz said, "that the next 49 are never going to be as good as this one."

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