Tuesday 25 July 2017

Jack magic still casts spell

Eamonn Sweeney

W hy is the Masters the special one among golf tournaments? There are those who'd say it's because of all that Good Old Boy Southern Culture And Heritage stuff crack. But I find that stuff to be a right royal pain in the butt and I still love the Masters.

Could it be something to do with timing? The Masters, unlike the other Majors, comes at a time when it's got the sporting field pretty much to itself. Even the British Open can get slightly lost during the busy summer sporting schedule. And there's also the fact of it being the first Major of the season, our appetite has been whetted by a lack of action over the winter and what happens at Augusta can seem to set the tone for the rest of the year. Or maybe it's just because, as American tourists to this country know, nothing looks better than a man in a green jacket.

The tournament has produced some of the most memorable sporting moments of the modern era, from Sandy Lyle's birdie putt on the last to win in 1988 to the historic resonance of Tiger's first triumph in 1997 when he won by 12 strokes at the age of just 21, from Greg Norman's collapse in the face of Nick Faldo's challenge in 1996 to Seve becoming the first ever European winner in 1980 and ushering in the golden era for golfers from this continent which saw Lyle, Faldo (three times), Jose Maria Olazabal (twice), Bernhard Langer (twice) and Ian Woosnam follow in the Spaniard's footsteps over the next 20 years or so.

But there is one tournament which sticks out not just as the best Masters but perhaps as the finest Major of all time. And that why it's well worth remembering the 1986 event as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.

It was ultra competitive. As the final round dawned, the world's top five ranked golfers, Ballesteros, Langer, Greg Norman, Tom Watson and Tommy Nakajima were all within two shots of the lead. And there was plenty of quality, Nick Price's third-round 63 was a Masters record and no-one to this date has shot a lower round in a Major.

And yet the 1986 Masters was all about one man, a man who had been utterly discounted as a contender not just in the run-up to the tournament but after the first couple of rounds had been completed. Because how could you take seriously a 46-year-old who had missed the cut in three of the seven events he'd competed in that year and withdrawn from another. A guy whose best finish that year had been 39th and who stood at 160th place on the US money list with a total of $4,404. A guy who would miss ten out of 11 putts from within 15 feet to sit six shots off the lead after the first two rounds. The only thing that might have given you pause was the guy's name, Jack Nicklaus.

It's probably hard to get across to younger readers the mystique which once surrounded Jack Nicklaus on the golf course. The man seemed like the very personification of American excellence at a time when golfers from that country dominated the world stage. Before Seve won the British Open in 1979, US golfers had won 27 of the previous 30 Majors. (For purpose of comparison they've taken 16 of the last 30). In 1971, 1973, 1975, 1976 and 1977 they perpetrated a clean sweep, something they haven't managed since 1982. And no-one picked up majors like Nicklaus whose tally of 18 continues to lead the way.

In the words of the great sportswriter Frank Deford: "How many other champions have become so identified with their sport, with every aspect of it, with the very essence of it, that it is impossible to think of one without the other? . . . they are very, very few; in his remarkable career Nicklaus has achieved that pre-eminence as much as anyone." For a generation of sports fans, Jack Nicklaus WAS golf.

He was a likable standard bearer for the game, a man who'd conceded the putt to Tony Jacklin on the final hole of the 1969 Ryder Cup which enabled Great Britain and Ireland to earn a remarkable tie at a time when the competition was usually nothing more than the ritual opening of a can of whup ass by the Yanks. He turned down $1 million to play a Vegas-style challenge match, "because he feared it would demean the game of golf."

Nicklaus believed that, "golf is as clean a sport as there is," and acted accordingly. Yet by 1986 Nicklaus, who'd been world No 1 from 1968 to 1977, seemed like a busted flush. CBS golf analyst Ken Venturi wasn't being particularly controversial when he said, "Jack's got to start thinking about when it is time to retire."

Those patchy first two rounds, 74 and 71, seemed to confirm that the Bear was in terminal decline. Though there was perhaps a small shaft of light in the third round on Saturday when he shot 69. "The first time I've broken 70 since I can't remember when," said the old stager. But everyone was talking about Price's 63. And with Greg Norman on 210, Ballesteros, Langer and Price on 211 and Kite, Watson and Nakajima on 212, nobody spared much thought for Nicklaus on 214.

That seemed justified early on the Sunday as Nicklaus missed four-footers on the fourth and sixth. By the time he got to the ninth, he was five shots behind Norman. Then he hit a birdie, and one at the 10th and one at the 11th. Suddenly he was two behind the new leader, Ballesteros.

It looked like a false dawn. Nicklaus bogeyed the 12th and even though he birdied the 13th, Seve eagled the hole to lead by four with five to play. Nicklaus had four holes left. At the par five 15th he hit a four iron to 12 feet and made his eagle putt. At the par three 16th he hit his five iron tee shot to three feet and nailed that putt. And at the 15th, Ballesteros put a four iron in the water.

The Masters crowd had never been more excited. As Nicklaus came to the seventeenth, he was level with Kite and Ballesteros. He hit a pitching wedge to 11 feet and made another of those putts which had eluded him until this extraordinary back nine. One hole to go, one up. He made par at the 18th, waited and watched.

Seve three-putted for a bogey at the 17th to put him out of contention. Kite missed a 12-foot birdie putt at the last to miss out by one stroke. But there was one final twist in the tale. Greg Norman birdied the 15th, then the 16th, then the 17th. A repeat at the last would give him victory, a par would send him into a play-off with Nicklaus. Norman went for broke with his second shot. "I just basically spun out and hit to the right," Norman recalled, "I was trying to hit it too hard and too high . . . I was going for the flag. I was going for the birdie and the win. It was the first time all week I let my ego get the best of me." Left with a 16-footer to tie, Norman missed it.

Nicklaus had produced the best back nine in Masters history, a 30 which had taken him from ninth to first. In the circumstances, it may be the best back nine in Major history. The irony of it all was that the man who had just won such an enormous sentimental victory had for many years struggled to win the affections of the American public. There were those who would never forgive him for ousting the people's favourite Arnold Palmer from the top of the tree. Deford wrote of how, "the trauma of destroying the legend, of having to overcome the idol of his sport, still inhabits Nicklaus . . . no matter how badly Nicklaus beat Palmer, he didn't win affection. Esteem, respect, admiration -- yes. But affection?" Nicklaus had almost seemed too perfect, both as a character and a technician.

Yet here he was, in the twilight of his career, finally the people's favourite, rendered likable by vulnerability. Things had changed from the days when, "He not only hit the ball so long, but also so high that it soared over the most time-tested of nature's obstacles. He forced the redesign of entire championship courses." That was Deford on Nicklaus in 1978, it could have been anyone on Tiger Woods in more recent times.

Perhaps there's a lesson for Woods in that incredible 18th Major victory by the man who has steadfastly refused to join in the chorus of disapproval berating young Eldrick over the last couple of years. Because not too long ago it looked as though it was only a matter of time before Woods, on 14 Majors and counting, would overhaul Nicklaus's 18. Well, time isn't so much on Tiger's side anymore. He's 35 now. And how many Majors had Nicklaus won at the age of 35? Fourteen. It's about an even-money bet now.

So if the Tiger is going to vanquish the Bear it looks as though he'll have to start winning Majors at a time when people are writing him off. It looks as though he'll have to dig deep now that the physical advantages may be waning. But perhaps it would be somehow fitting if, in the end, it's that last most unlikely triumph in the greatest Major of all which keeps Nicklaus ahead of the one golfer who's seriously challenged his status as the greatest of all time. Maybe if Jack ends on 18, just one ahead of Tiger, he'll deserve it because of what he did that magical week a quarter century ago.

Then again who can predict anything in a world where the 160th man on the money list can win a Major after trailing the world No 1 by four shots with five to play?

At Augusta anything can happen. And that's why so many of us will be glued to the box this night next week in the hope that for once we'll see an actual Irishman wearing a green jacket.

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