Golf doesn’t observe specific sanctified dates — the sport’s always been more like Easter than Christmas in that way — but if you were trying to pick the most historically important date on golf’s calendar, you’d have a hard time topping April 13.
This particular date saw the culmination of one majestic career and, 11 years later, the start of another. Golf journalism ladles adjectives like a hacker throwing sand trying to get out of a pot bunker, but in this case, you can’t pile the praise high enough. April 13, 1986 saw Jack Nicklaus win his 18th and unlikeliest major, and April 13, 1997, saw Tiger Woods win his inevitable first one.
Both coronations happened at Augusta National Golf Club, of course, given that the Masters claims the first full week of every April … well, except for this year. That’s the kind of symmetry the Golf Gods (and the people who believe in things like “the Golf Gods”) love, the kind of generational testing and torch-passing that makes golf the most self-reverential and history-minded of any sport.
While both days ended in a green jacket for the legend and soon-to-be legend, the rounds couldn’t have proceeded any differently. Both players came into their respective tournaments with little notoriety, Nicklaus because he was apparently over the hill, Woods because he’d been a pro for less than a year and allegedly couldn’t even see the hill. Both projections, it seems safe to say now, were somewhat inaccurate.
Neither player started strong. Nicklaus posted an unremarkable opening round of 74, six strokes off the lead. Woods went out in 40 — yes, that’s correct — but began his rally at the turn on Thursday, posting a second-nine 30 to finish the day just three strokes off the lead.
Nicklaus continued to sidle forward on Friday, finishing with a 71 that left him still six strokes behind leader Seve Ballesteros. Eleven years later, Woods didn’t fool around a bit, surging ahead of the field for his first-ever lead in a major championship. He finished the day three strokes ahead of second-place Colin Montgomerie.
On Moving Day, Nicklaus continued his slow stalk of the field, finishing Saturday four strokes behind leader Greg Norman. But considering there were another 13 players within four strokes of the Shark’s lead, Nicklaus was all but ignored. In 1997, nobody was ignoring Tiger; he continued to torch Augusta en route to posting a nine-stroke lead over the field. Nine!
You know the rest of the story. Five different players held at least a share of the lead on Sunday in 1986, but Nicklaus, playing well ahead of the leaders, began his charge for the ages on the ninth hole. His eagle-birdie-birdie run from 15 to 17 gave him the solo lead, and the noise roaring back to the pairings behind him unsettled Ballesteros, Norman and the rest so badly that they fell off the pace, one by one.
Norman had a chance to force a playoff, but a wayward approach on 18 killed his chances and effectively handed Nicklaus his final green jacket. The cheers at Augusta wouldn’t be matched for another 11 years.
By Sunday in 1997, all that was left to be decided was whether this was the greatest performance in Masters history, golf history, sports history or world history. Woods annihilated the field, finishing 12 strokes ahead of second-place Tom Kite. (Trivia note: Kite, along with Norman, also finished second to Nicklaus in 1986.)
As the years have passed, both wins have only grown in stature. Both victories regularly top “best moments” lists, not just of the Masters but of sports in general. Woods’ 2019 victory is the first tournament victory in two decades to stand alongside those two, and it might well be two decades before we see another.
The next April 13 to fall on a Sunday at Augusta won’t come around until 2025. By then, Tiger will be 49 years old … and some phenom who’s only 14 right now will be just rounding into tournament-winning shape.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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