‘Yes, sir,’ Jack Nicklaus’ back-9 drama in 1986 endures among best at Augusta National as CBS delivers 'magnificent stuff' of its own
Not only does the 1986 Masters deserve strong consideration as the greatest golf tournament ever played, it should rank highly on any qualified list of the top sporting events in American history. Beyond Jack Nicklaus’ heroic charge to a sixth career victory at Augusta National, the storyline is enriched by several crucial components that Sunday afternoon. All would combine to provide the depth and immeasurable drama that made Nicklaus’ final major title an unforgettable one.
Watching the final-round telecast 35 years later, one easily can get the sense that it simply was meant to be. Nicklaus piled up six birdies and an eagle over the last 10 holes, but sheer destiny played a huge role in the outcome. If Seve Ballesteros hadn’t hooked a relatively routine approach into the water at the par-5 15th, if Greg Norman didn’t send his second shot deep into the gallery right of the 18th green, if Tom Kite had gotten one putt to fall instead of repeatedly burning edges down the stretch, fate surely would have taken a pass on April 13, 1986.
Instead, we got the icon riding off into the sunset. Although Nicklaus would play plenty of golf over the next 15 years, most of it on the Senior Tour and virtually all of it ceremonial, his last true hurrah remains the game’s ultimate defining moment. Thanks to YouTube, the entire CBS broadcast can be viewed without commercial interruption, bringing to life a day when the network’s coverage was almost as superb as the Olden Bear himself.
Better than most? Longtime NBC analyst Gary Koch, who was tied with Nicklaus (and five others) at 2 under through 54 holes, was finishing in the group ahead as Nicklaus arrived at his drive on the 18th. For all the fuss generated by NBC over the years regarding Koch’s signature call – which came about when Tiger Woods holed a difficult birdie putt on the island-green 17th during the 2001 Players Championship – those words were spoken during the tournament’s third round.
In golf, immortality works only on Sunday. During the closing stages of the ’86 Masters, CBS analysts served up at least a half-dozen lines every bit as memorable, regardless of how many people actually remember them.
“Oh, yes, sir! The battle is joined!” Ben Wright howls after Nicklaus rolls in the pivotal 12-footer for eagle at the 15th. “My goodness, there’s life in the Old Bear yet. Magnificent stuff!”
Yes, indeed. As one might expect from live programming that occurred 3½ decades ago, there are a number of technical glitches in the presentation. In fact, Nicklaus is first seen about 22 minutes into the show, fetching his birdie putt from the cup at the ninth to ample applause, yet there is no voice or graphic to explain what just happened. Just a middle-aged fella with blond hair acknowledging a very energetic gallery.
At that point, things begin to heat up. “The Bear is stalking,” Bob Murphy muses after Nicklaus holes a 25-footer for birdie at the 10th to reach 4 under, four shots behind Ballesteros, who had just eagled the eighth. “C’mon, Jack. Smile,” Murphy adds. “That’s it. We won’t count him out on this back nine.”
Despite audio discrepancies throughout – crowd reaction that doesn’t match the visual, periods of weird background noise, cheers fading in and out – the telecast represents a friendly departure from today’s airtight productions. It’s also worth noting that Nicklaus, who finished at minus-9 about 35 minutes ahead of the final pairing, wouldn’t be seen again until emerging from the Bobby Jones Cabin after Norman failed to force a playoff with his par putt at the 18th.
Nowadays, a cameraman would have followed Nicklaus straight into the waiting room. If the club denied him access, he would have planted his lens against the nearest available window.
For all the magnificent stuff heard over the final 90 minutes, one voice stands out above the rest. CBS producer Frank Chirkinian thought enough of Wright to give him the most opportune seat on the grounds; the rotund Englishman remained a fixture at Augusta National’s 15th until the network dismissed him in early 1996 for making inappropriate comments about female golfers. Wright’s demise left viewers without a treasured resource, a man whose rich baritone and concise delivery featured observations and opinions unlike those from anyone else in the business.
“Ooh, he’s pulled it; he’s pull-hooked that, and it’s destined for the water!” Wright bellows as Ballesteros’ second at 15 dives into the green-front pond. The splash is greeted by a huge ovation from the throng of pro-American spectators, to which Wright replies, “And the foreign invasion is reeling from the Bear’s attack!”
It was a comment you’d never hear in 2021, given the adjustments in politically correct sensibilities since Ronald Reagan’s rule and golf’s fondness for old school. This was 1986, mind you, a period during which Ballesteros was leading a Ryder Cup revolution and winning majors on a regular basis. Not so coincidentally, there are several nationalistic references made during the CBS coverage. Tacky more than offensive, such statements certainly would arch eyebrows 35 years later.
Nevertheless, Ballesteros proved flawless in his role as the villain, handling his downfall like a man, then transmitting positive vibes to the thousands of patrons who had rejoiced in his downfall moments earlier. This would be Nicklaus’ day. Even the foreign invasion knew it, reeling as it were, although the Bear still needed at least one more birdie as he arrived at the 17th tee.
It was there that Verne Lundquist, overseeing the action on the penultimate hole, announced that Nicklaus was in pursuit of his 20th major title. The same number had been used earlier in the telecast, reflective of a time when Nicklaus himself thought his two U.S. Amateur victories should be included in the overall total. A skinny phenom named Tiger Woods would prompt an unofficial revision of the record book years later, but when Nicklaus rebounded from an errant drive with an approach to 18 feet on the 17th green, 20 was still the magic number.
“Maybe …. Yes, sir!” Lundquist roars as the man in the yellow shirt raises his putter, a salute to his seventh birdie of the afternoon.
“He did something there [that] he hasn’t done all week,” Tom Weiskopf adds from his seat in Butler Cabin. “He kept his head still for a change.”
It was a typical Weiskopf gem, a trace of admonishment wrapped in unabashed admiration, the second of two great lines he uttered down the stretch. The first had come as Nicklaus prepared to strike his tee shot at the par-3 16th. “What’s going through his mind right now?” CBS rookie Jim Nantz asks the old war horse.
“If I knew that,” Weiskopf replies, “I would have won this tournament.”
Lundquist would earn considerable renown for his reaction to the birdie that gave Nicklaus the outright lead for the first time all week. He would repeat “Yes, sir!” just a half-hour later, however, after Norman’s miraculous recovery shot led to his own birdie at the 17th and share with Nicklaus at 9 under. Given that Wright originally used the term while calling the eagle that ignited Nicklaus’ closing rally, the Brit was none too pleased about the replication.
Long after his ouster from CBS, Wright still admitted to being “very bothered” by what he perceived as Lundquist’s plagiarism. “A lot of people don’t want to give me credit for it,” he would say. The two men reportedly have resolved the matter since, whereas Norman never did shirk the Masters demons that originally surfaced on that 18th fairway in 1986.
“If I could have one career mulligan,” the Shark told Golfweek’s Jeff Rude in 2011, “I’d take it there.”
After clearing what had to be hundreds of patrons for an exceptionally difficult chip halfway up the bank, Norman did a decent job in stopping his third shot 12 feet past the cup. His attempt to force extra holes drifted left early and never had a chance, leaving the ring of humanity around the 18th green to comprehend all that it had just witnessed.
“We’ll be back with that trophy ceremony as soon as Jack is located,” CBS anchor Pat Summerall informs viewers, although Nicklaus, like a ghost of champions past, already has reappeared for the short walk to immortality. He is surrounded by a phalanx of giddy security guards who clearly aren’t necessary, one of whom actually has his arm draped over Nicklaus’ right shoulder. Sometimes, destiny shows up in the darnedest of disguises.
Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.