It has been two decades since Jack Nicklaus' march to Masters victory with a very unique putter

Published April 2, 2006

His putting had been so bad that Jack Nicklaus switched to a bulky, clumsy-looking apparatus with an oversized head. Not that it had done him much good.

Called the Response and made by the MacGregor company Nicklaus owned at the time, the Golden Bear put it in his bag with little success until a magical Sunday at the Masters, where putts fell, hearts stopped and an enduring memory was carved out of the Georgia pines.

It has been 20 years since Nicklaus' remarkable march to victory at the 1986 Masters, where he traversed the back nine in a mere 30 strokes, only 13 of them putts.

The story has been told again and again: how Nicklaus was 46; how he was six years removed from his last major victory; how he had not won anywhere in two years; how a newspaper article saying he was "done, finished" was posted on his refrigerator that week; how he held off some of the top players, including Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros.

At 66 and having played his final Masters a year ago, Nicklaus can recite yardages, clubs and thoughts from that day. He reminisced at a recent gathering at the Bear's Club in Jupiter.

"Seems like yesterday," he said. It helps that replays are shown so frequently on the Golf Channel. "It's about the only television that, when I see it come on, I actually stop and watch a little bit of it," he said.

So much to remember

It was the 50th Masters, and Nicklaus' oldest son, Jackie, was caddying for him at Augusta National for the first time. The victory turned out to be the last of his 73 titles on the PGA Tour. And it was his 18th major championship, coming 24 years after his first.

Another tidbit: It was Nicklaus' sixth Masters victory, tying him with Harry Vardon as the only professionals to win the same major six times. Vardon captured his sixth British Open in 1914.

Nicklaus' final-round 65 included an eagle-birdie-birdie sequence on the back nine, the result of some remarkable ball-striking and a suddenly hot putter.

"Oddly enough, it's the only golf club that I won a major with that I don't have," Nicklaus said. "I'm sure one of my boys gave it away."

Nicklaus had used a George Low flange model for just about all of his major titles. The only time he switched and won was in 1967 at the U.S. Open, where he used a painted white putter he called "White Fang." That club also had gone missing, but turned up a few years ago when Nicklaus' son Steve got it back from a friend he had mistakenly given it to.

The Response has yet to resurface, but it responded at exactly the right time.

With 10 holes left, Nicklaus trailed Ballesteros by six. But he needed only 33 strokes over those final holes, holing birdie putts at the ninth, 10th and 11th, followed by a seemingly rally-killing bogey at the 12th.

But after hitting the par-5 13th in two shots, Nicklaus two-putted for birdie, parred the 14th, then knocked a 4-iron on the green in two at the 15th, draining a 12-foot eagle putt that had the ground trembling. A moment later, Nicklaus struck a 5-iron shot to the par-3 16th that nearly went in for an ace and stopped 3 feet away for another birdie.

Ballesteros still led by one, but the mood and momentum had clearly changed.

And it would quickly change more.

"I went to the 17th tee and all of a sudden I heard this ugly sound - I knew exactly what it was," Nicklaus said. "I knew that Seve had hit his ball in the water (at the 15th). And I hate that sound because half of the sound was cheering for me, and other half was the groan for him hitting it in the water. So you knew exactly what it was."

A 10-foot birdie putt at No. 17 gave Nicklaus his first lead of the tournament, and a two-putt par at the 18th put him in the unusual position of having to wait to win a major.

The leaderboard had also seen Nick Price, who set the course record of 63 the day before, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle, who was paired with Nicklaus.

By the time Nicklaus finished, only Ballesteros, Kite and Norman had a chance. Ballesteros fell away with bogey at the 17th. Kite had a 12-foot birdie putt at 18 that somehow stayed out of the hole.

And then came Norman, who was tied for the lead at the beginning of the day, appeared to drop out of contention, then came charging back with four straight birdies. That tied him with Nicklaus through 17.

But at 18, Norman pushed his approach to the right of the green and was unable to get up and down for par.

A stroke of luck

Amazingly, Nicklaus' 65 matched his second-best score ever in the tournament. Only once, during the 1965 Masters, had he gone lower, shooting 64. And in 1982, he shot 65 in the second round.

But to do it again at age 46? And with a putter that looked like a shovel? Nicklaus chuckled at the memory.

"I remember the first tournament I played with it and the thing was so big that the wind would get to it," he said. "I had a 6-inch putt at Eagle Trace (Honda Classic) where the wind was blowing so hard I hit the putt, stubbed it and missed it short and left. And I said, "Oh, man, what have I got this thing in my hand for?' And I think the public looked at it about the same way. You couldn't give it away prior to the Masters.

"But I stayed with it because I rolled the ball so well with it. And once I got used to the lightness of the putter, I could make the ball roll over better with it."

The putter became hugely popular after Nicklaus won with it. Pro shops couldn't keep them in stock. "We couldn't make enough putters," said Nicklaus, who estimated the company sold 350,000.

Going into the Masters, it was a different story. "We probably sold four and I probably used three of them," he said. "Maybe someday somebody will look in their garage and find my old putter."

For history's sake, it sure would be nice.