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A timeless picture of Jack Nicklaus' greatness

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The photo lives. It breathes. It practically roars.

Twenty-five years later, it still needs no explanation. Not of the scene. Not of the significance. Not of the man holding a golf club the way one might hold a scepter.

The beauty of the shot is not in the manner it is framed, nor in the way the subject is captured. The secret is in the potential to take you to another place and time.

For sports fans of a certain age, this is among the fondest memories of a lifetime. The day, 25 years ago this month, that Jack Nicklaus reinvented magic.

Greg Norman-6

Nick Price-5

Donnie Hammond-5

Bernhard Langer-5

Seve Ballesteros-5

Tom Kite-4

Tom Watson-4

Tommy Nakajima-4

Sandy Lyle-2

Jack Nicklaus-2

Look at the leaderboard on the morning of April 13, 1986. Of the top 10 golfers, eight have majors in their portfolios. Seven have more than one major.

That makes Nicklaus' Sunday charge remarkable enough. Then consider that the Golden Bear was 46 that afternoon. He had not won a major in six years and had not won a tournament of any kind in two years. He had missed the cut or withdrawn in four of his previous seven tournaments and finished 39th, 47th and 60th in the others.

That Sunday morning, he ranked 160th on the PGA Tour money list.

Before the tournament had even started, a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said Nicklaus was a washed-up golfer with no chance of winning.

A friend sharing a rental house with Nicklaus in Augusta that week clipped the story and put it on the refrigerator and then waited for a reaction that never came.

"I guess nobody expected me to be in contention at that point in my career, particularly me," Nicklaus said. "I didn't want to quit playing, but I really didn't have any goals."

By then, he was a legend in repose. He had his golf course design business, he had his family, and he had more victories in majors, with 17, than any golfer.

So there was no reason to believe Nicklaus was in contention when he approached the ninth hole on Sunday morning, six strokes behind Ballesteros. Not even CBS felt compelled to rush a Nicklaus highlight on the telecast when he birdied No. 9.

He followed with birdies on the next two holes before a bogey on No. 12. He got another birdie at No. 13 and a par on the next hole. By the time he reached No. 15, he was still four strokes behind and time was running out.

This was when he turned to his son Jackie, who was his caddie, and asked how a 3 sounded. Nicklaus wasn't talking about club selection; he was referring to an eagle at the par-5 hole. Three strokes later, he was in the cup, and two strokes out of the lead.

"The battle is joined," Ben Wright said on the CBS broadcast that afternoon. "My goodness."

Nicklaus had made up four strokes in seven holes, and patrons at Augusta National were racing from all over the course to catch a glimpse of history strolling by.

"Greg (Norman) and I were in the last group back on 13th tee. Normally you look down the 13th fairway and there's just a swath of people," Price said last month at the Honda Classic. "There were like 30 people watching us. It was like a Monday practice round. In fact, there's more people on Monday.

"It said on the back of the patrons' badges, 'Do not run.' Well, people were running everywhere. You saw guys running trying to find a spot because they knew something magical was happening."

Even fans who could not get close to the Nicklaus gallery seemed to be pulling for him from elsewhere on the course. As Nicklaus, who birdied 16, approached his shot on No. 17, he heard the telltale mixture of cheers and groans from another hole.

"You hear that sound, you know exactly what it is," Nicklaus said. "I knew what happened to Seve."

Ballesteros had gone into the water, and Nicklaus was now tied for the lead. Nearly three decades after his debut at the Masters, Nicklaus was a 12-foot birdie putt away from the greatest back-nine charge of his career.

Jackie told his father the ball would break right. Nicklaus agreed but said it would also break back left before hitting the hole. For 15 seconds, he stood over the ball in silence. On CBS, Verne Lundquist reminded viewers the shot was for sole possession of first.

Ten more seconds passed before Nicklaus moved his putter.

"Maybe … ," Lundquist said as the ball rolled the first half-dozen feet.

This is the moment. This is the photo. Nicklaus raising the putter in the air with his left hand as he followed the path of the ball toward the cup.

"YES, SIR!," Lundquist shouted as the ball dropped.

Other golfers have said the ground at Augusta shook that afternoon.

The explosion of cheers was unlike anything they had heard before.

"Loud and furious," Fred Couples said. "Great."

With the lead in his pocket, Nicklaus played it safe on No. 18 for par then watched as Kite missed a 12-foot birdie putt that would have forced a playoff, and Norman's own thrilling charge ended with a shot into the gallery at No. 18.

There are legends in every sport. There are upsets every year. What's rare is the blending of such a huge name in the role of utter underdog.

For Jack Nicklaus, the 1986 Masters was a final moment of glory. He heard cheers walking up the 18th fairway that were not just ceremonial, but heartfelt.

Fans who were appreciative of his performance and grateful for the opportunity to be witnesses.

"Nothing really quite compared with '86," Nicklaus said Tuesday.

What: 75th Masters When/where: Thursday-Sunday; Augusta, Ga. Course: Augusta National Golf Club (Par 72, 7,435 yards) Defending champion: Phil Mickelson, who won his third green jacket Purse: $7,500,000 ($1,350,000 winner’s share) On TV Today: Par-3 tournament, 3 p.m., ESPN Thursday: 4-7:30 p.m., ESPN (highlight show, 11:35-11:50 p.m., Ch. 10) Friday: 4-7:30 p.m., ESPN (highlight show, 11:35-11:50 p.m., Ch. 10) Saturday: 3:30-7 p.m., Ch. 10 Sunday: 2-7 p.m., Ch. 10 On the Web:

A timeless picture of Jack Nicklaus' greatness 04/05/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 12:10am]
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