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The Bear’s Last Roar: Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters

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The 1986 Masters Tournament was a watershed moment and one of the greatest comebacks in golf history. At 46, Jack Nicklaus defied the odds and expectations of fans and pundits to capture his 6th green jacket, claiming his record eighteenth and final Major Championship, cementing his status as the greatest player of all time. Now 84 and an honorary starter, Nicklaus stated, “The Masters isn’t just another tournament. It is something really special. I get as much excitement driving down Magnolia Lane now as I did 40 years ago.”

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Nicklaus proved that he could still compete at the highest level twenty-three years after his first Masters win, making him the oldest player ever to claim the coveted green jacket. Julius Boros (48 in 1968) and Phil Mickelson (50 in 2021) are the only two older Major Champions. The 1986 winner’s share was $144,000, more than seven times Nicklaus’s earnings for his first Masters victory.

Leading into the 1986 Masters, an article written by Tom McCollister of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution stated that “Nicklaus is gone, done. He just doesn’t have the game anymore. It’s rusted from lack of use. He’s 46, and nobody that old wins the Masters.” Nicklaus acknowledged that the article was “very justified” as he was “getting old and…playing not very well” heading into the 1986 Masters. He said, “To tell you the truth, I kind of agreed with Tom, I’m afraid, but it helped get me going.”

In this post, we’ll revisit the thrilling and historic 1986 Masters. We’ll review Nicklaus’ history at Augusta, further set the context for 1986, relive Jack’s final round charge, and some of the iconic calls from the CBS broadcast. As always, our suggested reading selection of books and audiobooks will help you take it further, and a selection of videos will help bring the event to life.

Check out our Masters content, including our running list of the best promos, deals, and authentic merchandise, as well as our book recommendations and articles about the course’s history and those who have shaped it.

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Nicklaus at the Masters

Nicklaus first competed in the Masters as an amateur in 1959, finishing in a tie for 50th place. This marked the beginning of his storied career at Augusta National, where he would cement his legacy as one of the greatest players in the tournament’s history. Four years later, Nicklaus captured his first green jacket, defeating Arnold Palmer in an 18-hole playoff. This victory at the age of 23 made Nicklaus the youngest Masters champion. Since then, Ballesteros (23 in 1980), Spieth (21 in 2015), and Woods (21 in 1997) have broken that record.

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Over the next decade, Nicklaus would win the Masters four more times, in 1965, 1966, 1972, and 1975. Nicklaus’ dominance at Augusta National was unparalleled, as he consistently overpowered the course with his prodigious length off the tee and his deft touch around the greens, causing Bobby Jones to state that “Nicklaus played a game of which I am not familiar.”

While Nicklaus’ Masters victories are the stuff of legend, he also experienced his fair share of heartbreak at the tournament. He finished as the runner-up on five occasions, in 1964, 1967, 1971, 1977, and 1981. In 1977, Nicklaus lost in a playoff to Tom Watson, a defeat that many considered one of the most agonizing of his career and would be repeated a few months later in the “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry.

Despite these close calls, Nicklaus’ ability to bounce back and continue competing at the highest level only added to his aura of invincibility. However, after dominating the support for more than two decades, as Nicklaus approached the mid-1980s, his dominance at the Masters began to wane, and many believed his best days were behind him.

Lead-up to the Masters

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Well into his mid-40s, many had written off Nicklaus’ chances of adding to his major championship haul, believing his best days were behind him. The golf world had witnessed a generational shift, with younger stars like Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, and Tom Watson emerging as the sport’s new faces.

While still highly competitive, he was no longer seen as the unstoppable force he once was. As the 1986 Masters approached, most pundits and fans did not consider Nicklaus a top contender. At 46, he was seen as past his prime but had been quietly working on his game, determined to prove the doubters wrong and show that he still had the skills and competitive fire to compete at the highest level.

The newly dubbed “Olden Bear,” Nicklaus hadn’t won a PGA Tour event in nearly two years and was six years removed from his last Major victory, the 1980 PGA Championship at Baltusrol. In the seven tournaments leading up to the 1986 Masters, Nicklaus missed three cuts and withdrew from one event, with his best finish being a tie for 39th in Hawaii.

After arriving in Augusta, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article was pinned up on Nicklaus’ refrigerator as “bulletin board material” by his friend John Montgomery, so Nicklaus had to see it whenever he opened the fridge. This constant reminder of the doubts about his abilities provided extra motivation.

1986 Masters Tournament

Nicklaus opened with rounds of 74 and 71, putting him at one over par heading into the weekend, six shots back of leader Seve Ballesteros. He followed this up with a 69 in the third round, getting him into a tie for ninth on a leaderboard crowded with the best players in the world. Four shots behind overnight leader Greg Norman, Nicklaus has played himself into contention going into the final day.

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As Nicklaus stepped onto the first tee for the final round, he trailed several of the game’s brightest stars in the prime of their careers. With the likes of Ballesteros, Norman, Watson, Kite, Price, and defending champion Bernhard Langer ahead of him, he would need something truly special to capture his 6th Masters title.

Nicklaus got off to a solid start, playing the first eight holes at even par to remain within striking distance of the leaders. Three straight birdies at 9,10, and 11 put him into serious contention for the first time all week. After a setback at 12, Nicklaus took off with a birdie at the par-5 13th and a remarkable eagle three at 15, leaving him two shots behind Ballesteros. Nicklaus then stuck his approach on 16 to within three feet and drained the putt for birdie, tying for the lead with Ballesteros, who bogeyed 15 after hooking his approach into the water.

Nicklaus missed the fairway at 17 but recovered, leaving an eighteen-footer for birdie and the lead. He spent a long time over the putt but sank it to take the lead for the first time all week. After a routine par at eighteen, he posted 30 for the second nine, 65 overall for his final round, and a score of 279, nine under for the tournament. It was left to Kite, Ballesteros, and Norman to catch him.

Greg Norman made four straight birdies between 14 and 17 to tie for the lead. Ballesteros 3-putted 17 to fall out of contention, and Kite missed his birdie putt on 18 to force a playoff. This left Norman on the 18th tee needing a birdie to win, par to force a playoff. After a perfect tee shot, Norman hit his approach into the gallery on the right and would ultimately make a bogey, tying for second with Kite at 280. Nicklaus had come from four shots back on the final day to win the Masters at 46!

Did You Know?

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Nicklaus’ son, Jack Nicklaus II, served as his caddie during the 1986 Masters. It was a special moment for the father-son duo, as Jack II had the unique opportunity to share and witness his father’s legendary triumph, one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. In his book “Best Seat in the House,” co-written with Don Yaeger, Jack II provides a behind-the-scenes account of that momentous victory.

He recounts how the elder Nicklaus remained calm and focused throughout the final round, never letting the immense pressure faze him despite being 46 years old and an underdog. Jack II’s unique perspective offers rare insights into his father’s mental fortitude and determination that fueled his success at Augusta National.

The book also delves into the valuable life lessons Jack II learned from his father during their time together on the course. Beyond the technical aspects of golf, he gained wisdom on perseverance, resilience, and maintaining a positive mindset – lessons imparted by one of the greatest champions that undoubtedly shaped Jack II’s own approach to life and the game.

Famous Calls

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The 1986 Masters broadcast featured several iconic calls that have become part of the sport’s lexicon. As Nicklaus sank a crucial eagle putt on the 15th hole to pull within two shots of the lead, CBS Sports commentator Ben Wright exclaimed, “Yes, sir! The battle is joined. My goodness. There is life in the old Bear yet.”

Later, as Nicklaus sank a 3-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole to pull within one shot of the lead, Jim Nantz added to the drama, declaring, “And there’s no doubt about it, the Bear has come out of hibernation.” Wright also provided a colorful call when Seve Ballesteros pulled his second shot into the water at the 15th, exclaiming, “Oh, he’s pulled it! Oh, he has pull-hooked that! That’s destined for the water! And the foreign invasion is reeling under the Bear’s attack!”

Finally, Verne Lundquist’s simple but iconic “Maybe… Yes sir!” as Nicklaus made an 18-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to take the outright lead cemented the 1986 Masters as one of the most memorable broadcasts in golf history. Lundquist will be broadcasting his fortieth and final Masters this weekend, and that is likely the most memorable call from a storied career.

Further Reading and Listening

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The Greatest Masters
by Stephen Goodwin

Summary: The Greatest Masters tells the story of the 1986 Masters, considered one of the most exciting and heartwarming events in golf history. It highlights Jack Nicklaus’ dramatic comeback, which saw him win his sixth Masters title at age 46.

The book provides an in-depth look at the tournament and the elite golfers who competed, including Nicklaus and legends like Arnold Palmer, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, and Tom Watson. It delves into the history, drama, and significance of the 1986 Masters, which is seen as a defining moment in Nicklaus’ storied career and the sport of golf.

The book captures the emotion and excitement, making it a must-read for golf fans looking to relive one of the game’s most memorable moments.

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The Story of The Masters
by David Barrett

Summary: The Story of the Masters is the first comprehensive year-by-year history of the world’s most famous golf tournament. Veteran golf journalist David Barrett draws upon contemporaneous reporting and other source material to offer dramatic accounts of each year the tournament has been played, starting in 1934.

The story of the tournament progresses from the early years when it was founded by golf great Bobby Jones and quickly established itself as an elite event, to the post-World War II era when Sam Snead and Ben Hogan dominated. The thrilling exploits of dashing hero Arnold Palmer brought the tournament into the television age and the sustained excellence of Jack Nicklaus helped to further the prestige of the tournament. Nearly two full decades of European dominance of the Masters heralded the international age of golf. Then Tiger Woods came along and used the Augusta stage for his coming-out party in 1997 and then for his epic comeback in 2019.

Tom Watson Golf

The Secret of Golf
by Joe Posnanski

Summary: The Secret of Golf explores the complex relationship between golf legends Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, chronicling their journey from rivals to friends over decades of battling for supremacy in major championships; Posnanski provides an intimate look at the two icons through firsthand interviews and accounts of their most memorable showdowns like the “Duel in the Sun” at the 1977 British Open; The book reveals the secrets of their greatness, with lessons on strategy, mental approach, and insights into their personalities.

golf my way

Golf My Way
by Jack Nicklaus

Summary: Golf My Way provides a comprehensive overview of Jack Nicklaus’s approach to every aspect of the game, from swing fundamentals to course management to the mental side of golf. Nicklaus explains his unorthodox upright swing in detail, advising golfers to develop a technique matched to their natural abilities rather than copy a rigid model. He shares wisdom on shot selection, practice routines, concentration techniques, and strategically playing to one’s strengths on each golf course. While some advice is outdated, Nicklaus imparts timeless golf insights on work ethic, confidence, and optimizing performance under pressure. Golf My Way offers a fascinating look inside the mind and methods of one of history’s greatest golfers.

my story jack

My Story
by Jack Nicklaus

Summary: In his candid autobiography, golf legend Jack Nicklaus takes listeners through his record-setting career, reflecting on his unmatched major championship victories, approach to competing at the highest level, and the physical and mental challenges he faced. Nicklaus provides an insider perspective on legendary triumphs like the 1986 Masters at age 46 and some painful defeats, portraying his relentless competitiveness and intense desire to practice and improve. Sharing warm recollections about family and fellow golfers, Nicklaus reveals the person behind the intense, focused golfer known for steely determination, showing his devotion as a husband, father, and mentor. From dominating the sport in his prime to remaining a contender into his 40s, Jack Nicklaus: My Story gives an intimate, first-hand account of the life and achievements of one of golf’s greatest champions. 

Videos

Nicklaus Birdie on 17
86 Masters 30 Year Anniversary
Nickalus on 86 Masters

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