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Best Masters ever? Jack Nicklaus' 1975 victory is up there

1975 Masters photo illustration Jack Nicklaus
In 1975, Jack Nicklaus, slipping into the green jacket with the help of 1974 winner Gary Player, emerges victorious in one of the most thrilling Masters ever.

Nicklaus stared down a hard-charging Johnny Miller and the hard-luck Tom Weiskopf in an Augusta National classic that might have been better than the Golden Bear’s triumph 11 years later

In April 1975, a new car from Volkswagen, called the Rabbit, retailed for $2,999. Saigon fell, ending the Vietnam War. And Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Tug McGraw said of his princely $75,000 salary, “Ninety percent I’ll spend on good times, women and Irish whiskey. The other 10 percent I’ll probably waste.”

Most importantly, the golf world witnessed on the second weekend in April what is arguably the most thrilling Masters ever. And argue, we will. There are those advocates of 1986 when Jack Nicklaus won his sixth green jacket at the ancient age of 46. The younger among us will hold up Tiger Woods’ 2019 victory, the first major title in 11 years for the beaten and battered greatest player of his generation.

But Nicklaus’ torching of Augusta National on that roaring Sunday in 1986 came miles ahead of the final groups, and fate apparently decided that Jack would win long before Tom Kite and Greg Norman each had a putt on 18 to tie, which would have ruined the story.

And Woods’ redemptive major generated an unmatched feeling of overwhelming joy for so many on the grounds of Augusta National and millions more in front of their televisions. But on Sunday afternoon, the chasers peeled off and stood on the sidelines for Woods’ triumphal walk.

However, neither of those extraordinary championships can match 1975 for the caliber of the combatants, four days of twists and turns and, eventually, the down-to-the-wire drama that resulted in the most famous putter dance by Nicklaus and ended in his fifth Masters victory.

If not for the events in the spring of 2020, we would have had a new Masters champion on the second Sunday in April. Instead, with the 84th Masters having been rescheduled for Nov. 12-15, we look back at the events in the spring 45 years ago that resulted in one of the great championships in the game’s history. Where exactly it ranks will be left to others to decide.

Besides the competition, the 1975 Masters will be remembered for an event that was a long time coming. Lee Elder was the first Black American to be invited to compete at the Masters. Breaking the color line at a place that had been lily white to that point was historic in a way that transcended sport in general and golf in particular.

Johnny Miller headed into the 1975 Masters as a prolific winner over the previous 18 months, with eight victories in 1974. He continued his desert destruction the following January, winning three of the first five events of the year, at Phoenix, Tucson and Palm Springs.

If not for Nicklaus, Miller would have been the best player in the world at the time, and some would even debate that fact. But the Golden Bear won twice before the Masters, taking the titles at Doral and Harbour Town, which was two weeks before Augusta.

The third protagonist in this drama was Weiskopf, who is almost always described in the same way: tall, elegant and powerful, with a swing envied by just about any golfer. But Weiskopf was inexplicably without a green jacket, having been a runner-up three times, most recently in 1972 and 1974. However, he came into the Masters with momentum, having won in Greensboro the previous week.

They were the three favorites to win.

Nicklaus broke out of the gates early, with rounds of 68-67, good enough for a five-stroke lead over Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper and Tom Watson. Weiskopf was six behind, and Miller seemed to be miles away, 11 shots out, thanks in part to a first-round 75.

But Miller woke up on that Saturday morning and remembered who he was: one of the most prolific birdie makers of his time. From holes 2 through 7, Miller made six birdies in a row to get back into the tournament, ending with a 7-under 65.

Weiskopf nearly equaled Miller with a third-round 66, which was good enough for a 9-under total and a one-shot lead over Nicklaus, who lost the lead with a 73 in the third round while paired with Palmer, who shot 75.

The third-round scores recorded by Miller and Weiskopf proved even more phenomenal, considering that the next-best score that day was a 69 from someone named Ralph Johnston, who was one of only six other players to post a sub-par round on Saturday.

Weiskopf’s next-closest challengers when Sunday began were Miller at 5 under and Tom Watson at 4 under. However, of the 46 players who made the cut, the top three on the leaderboard attracted nearly all of the attention.

“Only the nearest of kin could have been watching the other 43,” wrote Hubert Mizell in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.

Curiously, although Nicklaus was in second place after three rounds, he wasn’t paired with Weiskopf on Sunday. Instead, Nicklaus was with Watson in the penultimate pairing, and Miller was with the leader in the final pair.

The drama was palpable, beginning early and lasting all day. After an opening bogey, Nicklaus made birdies on three of the next four holes and caught Weiskopf at 10 under. Weiskopf took the lead with a birdie on No. 6, but Nicklaus birdied the ninth to draw even.

Miller bogeyed No. 3 but made birdies on four of the next six holes to turn in 9 under, two behind.

Nicklaus went one ahead when Weiskopf rinsed his second shot at No. 11 and saved bogey. But Weiskopf went one ahead when he followed a Nicklaus bogey at the 14th with a birdie. Nicklaus launched a 240-yard 1-iron second shot to the par-5 15th for a two-putt birdie, and Weiskopf matched him right behind to remain one stroke ahead.

The tournament turned for good at the par-3 16th. Nicklaus hit an indifferent 5-iron 40 feet from the hole. Watson, his playing competitor, hit his tee shot into the water and was on his way to making a quadruple-bogey 7.

In the meantime, Weiskopf and Miller reached the 16th tee and had a view from 190 yards of what happened next. Nicklaus demonstrated why he was the greatest of all time by holing the big-breaking 40-footer and running around the green, holding his putter in the air, which would become one of the iconic moments in championship golf.

Weiskopf followed with a poor 5-iron of his own and three-putted from about 100 feet, giving Nicklaus a one-shot lead. In the meantime, Miller birdied the 17th to pull within one, setting up the pressure of the final hole.

Miller had 20 feet for birdie at the 18th after a 7-iron approach shot. He played for a 2-foot break, but it broke 2½ feet. Weiskopf had 10 feet on about the same line, and his didn’t break at all. It was his fourth runner-up at the Masters.

“All I know is that I got sick,” Weiskopf said. “I had played my heart out and finished second again.”

Nicklaus knew he had been in a battle that history often would look back upon. “I feel damn lucky to win,” he said.

“To be out there in the middle of something like that is fun,” Nicklaus said after his 13th major-championship victory in a career that eventually would total a record 18 of golf’s biggest prizes. “You're inspired; you're eager; you're excited. You almost want to break into a dead run when you hit a good shot. It's what you've prepared yourself for, what you wait a year for.

“To know you can look back some day and know you were a part of something like it, that's just great.”

When measuring the Masters, it was perhaps the greatest.

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