Even more so than physical ability, perhaps the attribute that most distinguishes elite athletes from the rest of us is the pathological desire to win at practically any cost. It’s a relentless drive that we as viewers can both admire, and concede shades into madness. Certain athletes—think of Tom Brady’s seven championships, or Bill Russell’s 11—push ahead with insensible, Ahab-like voraciousness even after their career achievements have become an abstracted blur of brilliance. The flip side of this trait is frequently an irreconcilable relationship between winning and losing, which has proved a quality of life issue for a non-trivial number of the best of the best.
It’s been 35 years since the 1986 Masters, when a diminished 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus roared past a leaderboard full of marquee names to win his 18th and final major championship. This late-career masterpiece—which concluded with a credulity-straining back-nine 30—cemented Nicklaus’s status as the then-finest player of all time. It also humanized him.
In his early days on Tour, Nicklaus was a dominant but remote figure, best known for beating the more outwardly accessible Arnold Palmer. In the 1970s, a blond mop and endless succession of thrilling victories endeared “the Golden Bear” to the public, but to see him in 1986 was something different. Back ailments had severely limited his schedule to the point that he was barely still a touring pro. He was a slower and heavier version of his previous self, and his grown son, Jackie Jr., was on his bag. He was old. A peculiar custom of the Masters is that any living previous winner may enter the field at any age, should they choose to do so. And at 46, Nicklaus seemed mostly like a nostalgic attraction—a way to bring eyeballs to the sport’s budding stars. Except he didn’t see it that way.
To commemorate the occasion of what is perhaps golf’s most fabled tournament of the pre-Tiger era, I spoke to Nick Price, Sandy Lyle, Tom Watson, and Greg Norman—all of whom are multiple major champions and were near Nicklaus on the leaderboard that weekend—about that particular Masters. Jack’s unlikely Sunday blitzkrieg was a thrill to fans, but how did it feel to the men competing on the course alongside him that day?
Nick Price was 29 in 1986, and going into the Masters, he didn’t feel like Nicklaus had a shot at winning.
“Oh, no, no, no. Not at all. I don’t think anyone did,” Price says. “He just came out of almost-retirement, really, or semi-retirement.”
All this time later, though, Price does recall an omen—one that should have tipped him off to what was coming. “I remember hearing that someone had written, I think it was in one of the Georgia papers, a sports column on the Monday or the Tuesday of that week that said something like, ‘Washed Up at 46, Jack Has No Chance of Winning the Masters.’ And so, either one of his family [members] or one of his buddies cut it out of the paper and stuck it to the refrigerator door that week. Every time Jack went to go to the refrigerator, he saw this. If anything would motivate him, that would.”
Even with Nicklaus just four shots off the lead going into Sunday, he would have to leapfrog a murderers’ row of established and emerging greats to remain in contention. Price, who at 5-under was tied for second with three others going into the final round, thought he was going to win. But if he didn’t, he was convinced that Greg Norman, alone in the lead at 6-under, would be the champion.
“Norman was playing great golf,” Price says. “He played consistently the whole week. And on the back nine on Sunday, he went on a tear. He played about as well as I’ve seen on the closing six holes of a major championship.”
As he stepped up to the 18th tee, Norman was tied with Nicklaus, the clubhouse leader, at 9-under. A simple par would force a playoff, and a birdie would win the trick. But Norman inexplicably airmailed his approach shot into the gallery, which resulted in a bogey that essentially gift wrapped the tournament for Nicklaus.
In the ways that golf can be incredible for even those who don’t win the tournament, Price’s Saturday 63 still holds up as the lowest competitive round ever carded at the Masters. He opened with a bogey and then went on to make 10 birdies. “Just one of these days I didn’t stop,” as he describes it.
Price didn’t win, but he reflects: “I still feel very honored to have been part of that day. And if I had won it, or someone else had won it, it wouldn’t have the same story. So, that’s the difference. That was Jack’s day, and Jack made that day happen.”
Sandy Lyle was Jack’s playing partner on Sunday in 1986. He was 28 and coming off an Open Championship victory, but he couldn’t possibly have known what that Sunday at the Masters held in store.
In the early stages of the final round, Lyle saw things that portended something special on the horizon. On the par-5 eighth hole, Nicklaus cursed a blue streak after driving into the trees. Following his next shot, though—a miraculous 3-wood recovery that had left him in prime position—Nicklaus was smiling.
“What was that about?” Lyle asked.
Jack responded: “Well, I was trying to go through a gap of about 12 feet, and I ended up going through a gap of about a foot.”
A camel through a needle’s eye. Spectacular luck.
“And he birdied the ninth, 10th, I think even 11th as well, boom-boom-boom, and all the sudden, it’s game on,” Lyle says. “And we are in a very pressure situation down those last four or five holes. The crowds were extremely noisy—noisy from enjoyment, because they were enjoying seeing Jack. The Golden Bear charge. A thrill and a migraine.”
Lyle went on to win the Masters himself in 1988, and he says he learned some things from the chaotic backstretch of the ’86 tournament that helped him on his way to victory.
“What I did see in the last six holes was how clinical and under control Jack was,” Lyle says. “His putting never got twitchy or fast. It’s like he was playing a practice round on a Sunday afternoon. I think that’s the thing I took away: There’s no need to get excited.”
No need to get excited?!
Great golfers often relay some version of this paradox: When the stakes are the absolute highest, the winner is usually the one who can practice a kind of meditative nonchalance. Major championship golf is always a grind, but Augusta is especially taxing.
“I think with the crowd and the excitement, you don’t even feel the energy sapping away from you,” Lyle says. “When I won in ’88, I had nothing left in the gas tank for the final three holes.”
Those in the professional golf ecosystem can sometimes be reluctant to place one major championship over another in terms of hierarchy. But Lyle is candid in his thoughts about where a win at Augusta ranks. “Any of the young players who think the U.S. Open is bigger than the Masters, think about it again!”
Lyle will be in attendance this weekend at the 85th playing of the Masters, and his wryness cannot hide the palpable joy he feels at returning to the course where he earned one of his biggest career achievements. “I get a chance to put on a green jacket every year and walk around with a big, smug smile on my face,” Lyle says. Only Jack Nicklaus has six of those jackets to choose from.
For much of the 1980s and ’90s, Greg Norman seemed capable of anything. Nicknamed the Great White Shark, the Australian superstar’s capacious length and accuracy off the tee intimidated opponents and made him a prodigious winner and forerunner to the über-men of today’s golf like Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, and Dustin Johnson. He was the no. 1 player in the world for a staggering 331 weeks. And he loved (and still loves) Augusta National. But fickle Augusta didn’t love him back.
Not only was his brilliant Sunday play in ’86—which included an improbable streak of four birdies on the back nine—only good for a second-place tie, but 10 years later, he would take a six-shot lead into the final round only to card a brutal 78 and hand the tournament to Nick Faldo. The green jacket never came.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the disappointment he’s often faced at the Masters, no one is more evangelical or generous when attempting to capture Augusta National’s ineffable charm. “It’s about the only golf course in the world where you know exactly who’s doing what by the roars,” Norman says, while recalling Nicklaus’s run. “You just started hearing it. ‘Jack.’ All these people are going, ‘Jack,’ ‘Jack.’ And so, you know.” It sounds like a horror movie, but he retells the story with genial relish.
It is peculiar to the nature of golf that the final act of that historic Sunday played out with Nicklaus entrenched in the champion’s clubhouse with the lead, watching the rest of the action unfold like an Olympian on high. As historic and unlikely as Nicklaus’s closing 30 was, Norman’s final nine holes were nearly as good. Birdies on 14, 15, 16, and 17 left him tied with Nicklaus with only the last to play. The waves of patrons who had been shadowing Jack’s every move now rejoined the final group to see the potential determining hole.
“If you get thinking about other things, that’s too much white noise,” Norman says. “Augusta National is such a precise golf course. You have to be precise. You can’t carry any white noise in your head.”
But Norman did succumb to the white noise that day. With 186 yards left to the back right pin placement, Norman blocked a 4-iron into a pack of assembled patrons, leaving an impossible up and down. His chip rolled 16 feet past the hole, and his par effort slid by to the left.
Though his memories at Augusta aren’t all rosy, Norman’s great play and graciousness in the face of defeat made him a revered figure at the course he could never fully conquer. “I guarantee there’s a lot of players out there today who would die for my experience at Augusta,” Norman says. “I feel like I’ve been indelibly etched into Masters history in a lot of different ways. And I think that’s a good thing because I put myself into that position.”
“You never discount Jack Nicklaus at Augusta. You never could do that,” says Tom Watson. A starkly different assessment than Norman’s and Price’s entering the 1986 Masters, but then Watson had seen some things. For a lengthy period in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it seemed that every major championship saw him and Nicklaus exchanging blows on the leaderboard, their triumphs and setbacks distributed almost equally.
Watson, the eight-time major champion, started that Masters Sunday two off the lead with a feel for the course and a hot streak with the putter: “I tend to play Augusta National pretty well, and I always felt like I had a chance to win there, in that stretch of time in my career.” Watson is being a little humble here. He would go on to win tour events, dominate the Champions Tour, and come within a whisker of winning an Open Championship in 2009 at the ludicrous late age of 59. Saying he “had a chance” is like saying darkening skies might mean rain.
And Watson wasn’t bad that Sunday, but scoring opportunities proved elusive. “I just couldn’t produce,” he remembers, a note of frustration creeping ever so subtly into his cordial Midwestern drawl. “I couldn’t produce the birdies I needed to.” His 1-under round of 71 left him minus-5 for the tournament and tied for sixth.
Nicklaus and Watson. Watson and Nicklaus. Names that rhyme with history. Twenty-six majors between them; 1977’s “Duel in the Sun” at the Open Championship at Turnberry, which rivals the ’86 Masters and any other golf tournament for sheer stakes and suspense. The pounds of flesh they had taken from one another. As he saw Jack continue to climb the leaderboard, Watson admits thinking: “I wonder if this is going to last?” Something told him that it would.
Despite their long-standing on-course rivalry and the great battles they fought against one another, Watson doesn’t believe that he and Nicklaus are the Frazier and Ali of golf, or anything like that. But he does admit there’s a certain strangeness of attempting a relationship with a fellow competitor with whom you’re twinned in legacy and honor-bound to hate on the course: “The more you’re with somebody, the more you get to know them. And I always enjoyed being around Jack. He was always brutally honest about things.”
Thirty-five years after the greatest golf tournament he ever lost, I asked Watson how he felt when Nicklaus prevailed.
“I was really happy for Jack,” Watson insists.
To be brutally honest, I’m not sure I believed him.
Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.