The most important hole of Jack Nicklaus' life

Yahoo Sports

Watch him walk. Watch, from a distance of 30 years, Jack Nicklaus walking through the lengthening shadows at Augusta National. He's 46, half a decade removed from his last major, and yet here he is, walking the way a man who owns the land around him ought to walk.

The knee-buckling terror. The twitchy hands. The cold clutch in the gut. Those were for other men, not Jack. Not on this day.

You know the overall story: Nicklaus won the Masters at an age in which most had already disregarded him as – well, not irrelevant, but certainly no threat, a bear pacing in a cage. This is how the 17th hole's three shots – misfire, precision, transcendence – combined to create one of sport's greatest moments.

____________________

Jack Nicklaus watches his shot go for a birdie, giving him the lead on the 17th hole. (AP)
Jack Nicklaus watches his shot go for a birdie, giving him the lead on the 17th hole. (AP)

Jack Nicklaus spent the Sunday morning of the Masters in 1986 the same way he'd spent the previous three days: gritting his teeth every time he went to the refrigerator, thanks to an article taped there by the Golden Bear's friend, John Montgomery. That article, by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Tom McCollister, dismissed Nicklaus's chances that weekend. "Nicklaus is gone, done. He just doesn't have the game anymore," McCollister wrote. "It's rusted from lack of use. He's 46, and nobody that old wins the Masters."

Thing is, McCollister wasn't wrong. By his own admission, Nicklaus hadn't prepared much for the Masters in 1986, and ambled into Augusta like he was walking a twilight round. He was tied for 17th headed into the weekend, and began that Sunday four strokes behind the leaders. Nothing about his game suggested he had another miracle left in his bag.

"A golf tournament is so fluid, it's not like you know the five guys you're going to have on the floor like in basketball," CBS commentator Verne Lundquist told Yahoo Sports. "My recollection is that we were thinking about Seve [Ballesteros] or Greg [Norman]. I don't believe Jack was in anyone's thought process." Perhaps that helped set up what was to come.

Sandy Lyle, the Scotsman who would win his own Masters two years later, drew the honor of pairing with Nicklaus that day.

"It was the only time I'd ever played with Jack in a major," Lyle told Yahoo Sports. "I was chuffed, excited."

On a Sunday morning at Augusta, the tension looms even thicker than the pollen. It's almost always beautiful, the sunrise playing over the white of the clubhouse and the pink of the azaleas, the green of the fairways … you can almost hear the piano music, if your heart isn't beating too loud in your ears.

Out on the course, CBS camera crews and broadcasters were getting into place. A peppy young fella working his first Masters, guy by the name of Jim Nantz, was getting stopped by Masters security for running across the grounds to his post above the 16th green. The man who'd previously held that spot, Lundquist, was preparing to call the action at the 17th green for his first time.

____________________

Nicklaus' opening holes that Sunday were as mediocre as white bread without pimento cheese. On No. 2, he'd punched out onto the fairway, and proceeded to chip onto a spot on the green "about as big as my feet," Lyle said. "He made a birdie where it easily could have been a bogey."

Six holes later, Nicklaus drove his tee shot 20 yards into the trees. Lyle watched as he drew out a three-wood – not the usual club of choice from deep in the brush – but Nicklaus brought the ball out cleanly, and walked out grinning.

"I was aiming for a gap about 10 feet wide," Nicklaus told Lyle. "I missed it. But I put it through a gap about 10 inches wide."

It was that kind of day.

One hole after that, Nicklaus set up for a birdie putt at nine, within easy sight of the Augusta clubhouse. Behind him, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Kite had just eagled, and the gallery roared its approval.

"Why don't we see if we can make a little noise up here ourselves?" Nicklaus said to the patrons around him, and then poured in his birdie. It was like an old rock band striking the first chord of their most famous tune, and the gallery joined in.

In the CBS truck, then-associate producer Lance Barrow told producer Frank Chirkinian that Nicklaus had just birdied nine.

Jack Nicklaus won his first green jacket in 1963. (Getty Images)
Jack Nicklaus won his first green jacket in 1963. (Getty Images)

"I gotta teach you about telling a story," Chirkinian growled at Barrow. "Nicklaus is no part of this story."

Then Nicklaus birdied 10, and as Lyle put it, "the tail started to come up again." He was still four strokes behind the leaders, but that amble had turned a bit more urgent.

"He never changed demeanor," Lyle recalled. "He never backed off or re-thought a decision. It was like he was on autopilot."

From there, Nicklaus dissected the remaining holes. (Chirkinian saw the error of his prediction, and CBS showed every Nicklaus stroke live from then on out.) A bogey at 12 enraged him, and he followed that with a two-putt birdie at 13.

"This isn't good for my little heart!" Lyle recalls Jackie, Nicklaus' son and caddie that day, telling his father.

"What about me?" Nicklaus replied. "I'm 46!"

Two holes later, Nicklaus was in the fairway looking at the green of the par-5 15th. "I wonder what a three would do here," he said to Jackie.

"That's too much club, Dad," Jackie replied, thinking his father was asking for a three-wood.

"No," Nicklaus said, "I'm talking about [carding an] eagle."

He got that eagle, and it sent up cheers of SEC football levels.

"From that point until he finished his round," Lundquist said, "I've never heard a golf course that loud."

Nicklaus lofted his tee shot at 16, and Jackie, in defiance of the usual "show up, keep up, shut up" rule, intoned, "Be right, be right …"

"It is," said Jack, not even looking.

"He couldn't even see it!" Lyle said laughing. "His eyesight wasn't so good. But he knew."

(Lyle, for the record, recalls that exchange on 16 as Jackie saying "Be good," and Nicklaus replying with a Han Solo-esque "I know." The details don't matter so much as the very un-Jack-like arrogance.)

Yet another birdie. Yet another chop at the foundation of the leaders.

Nantz asked Tom Weiskopf, his broadcast partner, what was going through Nicklaus's mind at this point. "I told him if I knew what was going through Nicklaus' mind," Weiskopf later told Yahoo Sports, "I'd have won two or three green jackets!"

____________________

As Nicklaus walked up the short hill from the 16th green to the 17th tee, the crowd's cheers were so loud that individual voices were indistinguishable. Lyle could only pick out a repeated, "Jack! Jack! Jack!"

"I had been looking back, and I could see [Tom] Watson and [Tommy] Nakajima, just standing there on 15 with their arms folded," recalled Lyle. "They were trying to wait out the crowd noise, but it wasn't stopping."

Nicklaus, meanwhile, was looking out at Nandina, a hole that today plays 440 yards but on that day was 400. Off in the distance, 210 yards off the tee, he could see Eisenhower's Tree looming over the fairway. That tree bedeviled the former president, hence its name, and scores of weaker-hitting amateurs until an ice storm claimed it in 2014.

While on the 17th tee, Lyle could look back to 15, which ran roughly parallel, and watch Ballesteros' approach.

"I heard people saying, 'Seve is in the water,' " he said. "I looked back and could see him still in his follow-through. It was clearly a miss-hit. That's how fast word was traveling."

As for Lyle's playing partner? "Jack surely heard that," Lyle said.

Nicklaus drove without hesitation. The CBS camera followed what seemed to be the ball's track up … and then the camera's view looked left and right, like a dog that had been deked by a fake throw.

"That never happened at Augusta, and definitely not at that hole," said Barrow, now CBS's producer at the Masters.

"We're still searching," Lundquist told the massive viewing audience. "It's not good, whatever." And wherever people were watching and listening to the Masters, in their homes or bars or in a store somewhere, hearts sank just a bit.

___________________

As it turned out, Nicklaus's shot wasn't great, but it wasn't unplayable. He'd gone into the gallery to the left of the fairway, not far from what was then the 7th green, and had about a 125-yard approach to the green.

"We are told that he has a clean shot to the green," Lundquist told the CBS audience. "One heck of a break."

Behind Nicklaus, Ballesteros slid his par putt past the hole on 15, and suddenly Nicklaus, standing amid the gallery, was in a tie for first place.

He swung. The ball arced as a course marshal called to the gallery to "Hold, please." The ball cleared the front edge of the green and began rolling toward the pin…

"Where is it?" Nicklaus asked Jackie as they walked toward the green.

About 12 feet from the hole, as it turned out. Twelve feet for the outright lead at Augusta.

____________________

Jack Nicklaus receives the green jacket from Bernhard Langer during the 1986 Masters. (Getty Images)
Jack Nicklaus receives the green jacket from Bernhard Langer during the 1986 Masters. (Getty Images)

There's no such thing as a simple putt at Augusta. Sometimes they're like putting down a playground slide, sometimes they're like putting on ice, and most times they're both.

Nicklaus was facing a double-breaking putt to give him the outright lead at the Masters.

Lyle, right there next to him, put it this way: "That was probably the toughest putt he's ever had to make at Augusta."

Clock it. CBS stayed with Nicklaus on 17 for nearly a full minute, and once Nicklaus began his address, Lundquist stayed silent for 15 seconds, letting the drama build. No one watching needed any kind of bombast setting up the meaning of the story, and Lundquist knew that.

"Maybe," Lundquist said as the ball began its second break. Nicklaus lifted his left arm, holding his putter, as the ball disappeared into the cup, and Lundquist punctuated the moment with a simple, "YES, SIR!"

"Some of my mentors taught me the art of the lay-out, the craft of the lay-out," Lundquist said of that call. "Just shut up. I remember telling myself, 'Don't get in the way of this.' "

The roars carried from the 17th tee up to the clubhouse at the head of the property and down to Rae's Creek at the foot of it. Nicklaus was now one up on Ballesteros and Kite, and two shots up on Greg Norman.

There was work yet to do, yes, but now the dream – a late Sunday lead at the Masters – was a reality. There were plenty of pieces yet to place, of course; Nicklaus had to survive 18, and Norman and Kite, among others, had to fail there – but the Bear's lead, the one he'd posted with that miraculous putt on 17, would stand the rest of the day.

Nicklaus disappeared into a crush of green jackets and media after walking off 18. At the post-round press conference, Nicklaus spotted McCollister, the Journal-Constitution writer who'd penned that motivational slam, and said with a smile, "Hi, Tom. Thanks."

"Glad I could help," McCollister replied.

Meanwhile, Lundquist tried to grapple with what he'd just seen, with the iconic moment he'd helped shape. His "Yes, sir!" – simple, declarative, effective – remains one of the greatest calls in sports history. Lundquist would be on the mic for several others, including Tiger Woods' miracle chip on 16 at Augusta in 2005, Christian Laettner's shot over Kentucky in 1992, and the Auburn Kick-Six victory over Alabama in 2013, but for him – and for millions more – nothing matches that Sunday on 17 at Augusta.

 

What to Read Next