News & Opinion

Golden Bear moment: '86 Masters stands out as best

Sure, that ’97 edition, with all of its social significance and hints at the decades to come from Tiger Woods, was big, but nothing can compare with the charge from an aging Jack Nicklaus in 1986

Next week happens to mark the 75th anniversary of the last time a Masters wasn’t played, as World War II led to the cancellation of the tournament for a third consecutive year in 1945. Three-quarters of a century later, America finds itself in a very different type of international skirmish. The coronavirus pandemic has brought virtually every sports league to a halt, leaving pro golf on an open-ended timetable, with no guarantees that competition will resume any time soon.

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods at the Masters
Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have scripted many memorable moments in the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, but according to John Hawkins, one of them stands out from the rest.

Given how the immediate future offers so little, this seems like an opportune time to dive into the game’s past. My list of the greatest Masters ever features one entry from each of the previous five decades. By no means is this meant as a slight toward the 33 editions held before 1970. If one of today’s superstars holed out from Augusta National’s 15th fairway for a double eagle to force a playoff, as Gene Sarazen did in his 1935 victory, replays of the historic shot still would be shown to generations that never knew how serious COVID-19 was.

Unfortunately, there is no visual documentation of Sarazen’s heroics. The Masters itself was first televised in 1956. Sunday coverage didn’t expand to two hours until 1973; total airtime for the entire tournament didn’t surpass eight hours until 1982. Perhaps no sporting event has benefitted more from the powers of omnipresence offered by TV, but the green jackets in charge of such matters always have been reluctant to embrace the concept of peak viewer accessibility.

A lot of terrific golf never was seen by more than a very few, many of whom are no longer with us. Legend dissolves into hyperbole, making it additionally impractical to compare classics from a long bygone era to those whom so many witnessed in real time. With all that in mind, I’ll put these five Masters up against anyone’s.

1975: Four years ago, USA Today published a ranking of every Masters held to that point (79 total) and decided to park this groundbreaking, earthshaking, breathtaking gem in spot No. 51. Journalistically, it was a shameful act of malpractice, especially for a newspaper fiscally fit enough to stay alive. Golf Digest senior writer Guy Yocom, whose 1995 oral history of the ’75 affair was as superb as the clash it recounted, still says it’s the best Masters of all-time. To rank it fifth here requires a certain amount of guilt.

The week began with Lee Elder becoming the first African-American to compete at a Masters. It ended with Jack Nicklaus beating Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller by a shot in the greatest three-man heavyweight bout ever staged. The most memorable blow occurred when Nicklaus holed a 40-footer for birdie at the par-3 16th. Miller shot 13-under 131 on the weekend, a tournament record that still stands.

Weiskopf held the 54-hole lead and maintained it for most of Sunday, but his bogey at the 16th – moments after Nicklaus’ bomb on the same green – ultimately proved to be the difference. “I dwelled on it for years, let me tell you that,” Weiskopf said. “It affected the s--- out of me.” Cracked Miller: “When Nicklaus got the green jacket, Tom got the straitjacket.” How’s that for a line?

The Masters
Tiger Woods celebrates the completion of his comeback in winning the 2019 Masters.

2019: Tiger Woods’ fifth Masters title was a difficult tournament to assess when it first happened, and it hasn’t gotten any easier almost 12 months later, One could justify it as the biggest story in sports last year, not only because it punctuated a comeback with a gigantic media life of its own or the historical connotations of the victory, but the public’s overwhelming response to it all. Redemption. Validation. Vindication. Transformation. It was more than enough to leave every Hollywood scriptwriter slobbering.

What sticks in my craw is that four quality players surrounding Woods on the leaderboard that Sunday afternoon – two of them reigning major champions – knocked their tee shots into Rae’s Creek at the par-3 12th. To whatever degree, the silly mistakes made by others carried Woods to his 15th major triumph as much as anything the winner did himself. Was he resilient? Absolutely. Resourceful? Of course. It was a landmark accomplishment, but it rates no better than fourth here because Woods’ performance lacked the greatness shown by others on this list.

2004: The first of Phil Mickelson’s three victories at Augusta National bears a striking resemblance to 1975 in one notable respect: clutch golf + a final nine full of fireworks + multiple lead changes + an ultra-popular champion = a Masters for the ages. Mickelson birdied five of the final seven holes to beat Ernie Els, who didn’t make a bogey after the fifth, took sole possession after eagles at the eighth and 13th and still lost in regulation despite closing with a 67.

Oh, and Arnold Palmer played in his 50th and final Masters that week. I remember following Arnie over the last few holes in the Friday evening twilight and being struck emotionally by the magnitude and beauty of his farewell. About 48 hours later, Mickelson holed the biggest putt of his life at the 18th, simultaneously shedding all the negative labels attached to his career and producing a storyline every bit as deep and lovable as the one crafted by Nicklaus 29 years earlier.

1997: When a 21-year-old kid – a young man of color, no less – wins his professional major by 12 strokes before the largest TV audience in golf history, the competitive landscape as we knew it is instantly rendered obsolete. Tiger Woods’ record-setting romp hasn’t altered the complexion of the game nearly as much as many had hoped or expected. Inside the ropes, however, it was the most astounding display of dominance we’d ever seen.

His margin of victory at the U.S. Open three years later was three shots wider, but by June 2000, the prodigy already had become The Man. What makes the ’97 Masters even more unfathomable is that Woods posted a 4-over 40 on his opening nine. Just when critics thought they heard the hiss of a leaking balloon, young Eldrick bludgeoned the back in a mere 30 strokes. From there, he had positioned himself to commence a wholesale edit of the tournament record book the following afternoon.

Beyond the ridiculous numbers or sheer ease with which he brought the old ballyard to its knees, the only child of Earl and Kultida Woods spent that second week of April making one thing perfectly clear. He wasn’t as good as all of us might have thought. He was way, way better.

1986: It might have been sexy, perhaps even fashionable, to dethrone Nicklaus’ sixth triumph at Augusta National and crown a more recent version of the tournament as the best ever staged. It also would be nonsense. Upon factoring the age and career path of the ’86 champion, his fully secure status as an icon, the depth of star power and shot-making that almost prevented Nicklaus from winning and his perfectly timed charge – all framed by several of the most unforgettable calls in the history of sports broadcasting – no other Masters compares.

“There’s life in the old bear yet!” CBS analyst Ben Wright proclaimed after Nicklaus eagled the 15th.

“Yes, sir!” CBS announcer Verne Lundquist bellowed when an 18-footer for the outright lead found the cup at the 17th.

Nicklaus would fire a 7-under 65 that Sunday to prevail by a stroke over Greg Norman, who ran off four consecutive birdies before bogeying the 18th, and Tom Kite, who couldn’t get a putt to drop coming in. Seve Ballesteros, the ideal villain for such an occasion, would finish third, doomed largely by the 4-iron he hooked into the water at No. 15. This resounding cast of characters fit perfectly into golf’s most enduring and endearing screenplay, and if the host network has an ounce of common sense, CBS will air a replay of the entire final round two Sundays from now.

Championship golf at its absolute best?

Yes, sir!

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