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An Old Story Brings Out Bear in Jack Nicklaus

April 14, 1986|MIKE DOWNEY

AUGUSTA, Ga. — See Jack. Jack is the greatest golfer who ever lived, most likely. Jack is no kid anymore, but he comes to the Masters and feels young again. He feels he can win it one more time.

Jack rents a house.

A friend comes by and reads Jack an article in an Atlanta newspaper. It says Jack Nicklaus is "done, washed up, through." Jack tacks it up on the refrigerator.

Jack's mom drops by.

Helen Nicklaus, 78, has not been to Augusta since Jack's first Masters, in 1959, when he was an amateur. "I always wanted to come back and see the course again," she says. "I'm a flower lover. The dogwoods, the redwoods, the azaleas. . . . I think I wanted to see all of that more than the golf."

After dinner at the house Friday night, the family has a sing-along. Barbara Nicklaus, Jack's wife, plays piano.

"Can Jack sing?" Helen Nicklaus is asked.

"No, but he tries," she says.

Jack's son calls.

It is Sunday morning and Pops is four strokes off the pace. Steve Nicklaus is in Hattiesburg, Miss., running a PGA satellite tournament for players who did not qualify for the Masters. He phones.

"Whaddaya think, Pops?" Steve asks.

"I think 66 would be good for a tie, and 65 would win it," Jack says.

"That's the number I had in mind, too," Steve says. "Go shoot it."

Jack's other son carries on.

"You gotta get this birdie," the caddy tells daddy. "Keep your head still."

Jack Nicklaus II is helping The Original Jack Nicklaus all he can. He reads putts. He helps choose clubs. He even recalls a chipping lesson from Chi Chi Rodriguez and passes on the advice.

For six years, he has not seen his father win a major. Since 1980, the only wins have come at the 1982 Colonial and the 1984 Memorial at Muirfield Village, the Nicklaus home course.

In 1986, not much had gone right for Jack Nicklaus I. Missed the cut at Pebble Beach. Missed the Honda cut. Missed the TPC cut. Withdrew at New Orleans because of his mother-in-law's death. Tied for 39th at Hawaii. Tied for 47th at Doral. Tied for 60th at Phoenix.

But here he is, on fire at the Masters, burning up the course, trying to become the winner for the sixth time, trying to become the oldest winner ever. Birdie at the 10th. Birdie at the 11th. Bogey at the 12th, but birdie again at the 13th.

Eagle at the 15th. The two Jack Nicklauses embrace. The crowd noise is deafening. There are tears in Nicklaus' eyes as he looks at his son, walking toward the 16th tee. He keeps trying to remind himself: "Hey, you've still got golf to play."

He also is trying to remind himself of the ancient law of fatherhood: Don't let your son catch you crying.

Jack goes for the jacket.

"Do you think a 3 would go a long way here?" Nicklaus asks his son at the 16th tee. He is not referring to a par-3 on the 170-yard hole. He is referring to the 3-iron that he wants to use. The hole is playing long.

Jack II says, "Go with the 5."

The tee shot comes down a few feet from the pin, nearly rolls in for a hole-in-one, then comes to rest three feet past. A birdie putt puts Nicklaus eight under for the tournament, one stroke behind Seve Ballesteros, the leader.

Walking to the 17th tee, Nicklaus hears a noise from two holes behind. He cannot tell what sort of roar it is--a cheer or a groan. "Something happened," is all he knows.

Ballesteros has gone into the water at 15.

Nicklaus is charging now. His stride is fast and forceful, like the old days. The Golden Bear is on the prowl. He takes a pitching wedge for his second shot at the 17th and plops it 11 feet from the cup. Then he sinks the birdie putt.

Nine under.

At the 18th hole leader board, the gallery sees the scoreboard operator post a red "8" for Tom Kite, who has gained a stroke. There is a cheer. Up goes an "8" for Ballesteros, who has lost a stroke. There is a louder cheer.

Up goes a red "9" for Nicklaus, and there is a roar that can be heard in Atlanta. The scoreboard operator shakes his fist.

Spectators are swarming toward the 18th hole. They curl through the pathways of the course, like an electric-train track. The 18th fairway is bordered with human beings from tee to cup. The green has lines 20-deep.

Jack Nicklaus turns again to his son. "We're not going to play the 18th defensively," he said. "We've got to stay aggressive."

But he takes a 3-wood instead of a driver and plays safely in front of a fairway bunker. With "179 yards left to the hole"--Jack Nicklaus knows every inch of this course--he hits a 5-iron onto the front of the peanut-shaped green.

The putt is about 40 feet. A pair of Jacks line it up. As he rolls it toward the hole, Nicklaus goes into a crouch. The putt stops four inches short.

But the par keeps him in the lead, so Nicklaus raises both fists triumphantly, taps in the putt and curls an arm around his son. Then they go off to see what Greg Norman is up to.

In Bobby Jones' cabin, an Augusta National landmark, Nicklaus watches television. He sees Ballesteros fade away. He sees Kite miss a putt at 18 to drop from contention. Norman is the only one left who can beat him.

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