By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 1999
He was too busy, they said. Too vain. And worst of all, too old. Jack Nicklaus, golf's cognoscenti proclaimed, never would win another tournament -- any tournament, much less a major.
Which is why the Masters that ended on April13, 1986, might be as memorable as any tournament played by Nicklaus -- or anybody, for that matter. At 46, he became the oldest player to win the Masters, and he did it with a breathtaking charge that cemented him as the game's greatest ever.
Four shots off the lead with four holes to play, the "Golden Bear" shot an eagle and two birdies to finish the final round with a remarkable 7-under-par 65. Six birdies and the eagle over the final 10 holes gave him 9-under 279 and a one-stroke victory over Greg Norman and Tom Kite.
For Nicklaus, the game's most dominant player in the 1960s and '70s, the win was his sixth Masters, his 20th in a major (18th as a pro) -- numbers still unchallenged -- and his first major since winning the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 1980.
"This may be as fine a round of golf as I ever played, particularly those last 10 holes," Nicklaus said. "I haven't been this happy in six years. ... I'm not as good as I was 15 years ago. Just occasionally I want to be as good as I once was, and I was that today."
As his momentum built, so did his gallery at Augusta National, the cheers raining down on him. "Walking up the fairways on the last few holes," Nicklaus said, "I had tears in my eyes four or five times. I just welled up. But then I told myself, "Hey, you've got golf to play.' "
Here is how he played it:
At No. 15, a 500-yard par 5, he hit a 4-iron well over the water to start Seve Ballesteros' downfall. Nicklaus landed 12 feet away, pin high, and sank the putt for eagle to pull within a shot of front-runners Ballesteros and Kite.
At No. 16, a par 3, he hit a 5-iron to the right of the green, 20 feet from the pin, and watched as the ball rolled within 2 inches of a hole-in-one and stopped 3 feet away. He putted for birdie.
At No. 17, a 400-yard par 4, he was standing over the tee "when I heard this large roar," Nicklaus said. "Ballesteros had hit his ball in the water on 15, but I didn't know that at the time." His second shot with a wedge from 125 yards out landed 11 feet left of the pin, and he sank the putt for the tournament lead.
Fifteen minutes later, with Nicklaus in the clubhouse, Ballesteros tied him at No. 17 with his fourth consecutive birdie, then bogeyed No. 18 with a tee shot into the crowd. Kite's chance died on No. 18 when he missed a birdie by 1 inch.
In a preview of the Masters, Tom McCollister, the Atlanta Journal golf writer, said Nicklaus' career was drawing to a close. The column was taped to the refrigerator in the home Nicklaus rented for the week. "I was done, washed up, through," Nicklaus said. "To tell you the truth, I kind of agreed with Tom, I'm afraid, but it helped get me going."
When McCollister arrived in the post-tournament interview room, Nicklaus looked at him. McCollister smiled and said, "Glad I could help," and the Masters champion laughed with everyone else.
-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.