Skip to main content
Original Issue

On The Course With Jack

Hole by critical hole, Jack Nicklaus relives the shots that catapulted him to victory in a Masters championship whose echoes still reverberate

After his majestic victory at Augusta, Jack Nicklaus the Masters champion was tending to the business of Jack Nicklaus the golf course architect again. On Friday he flew with his wife, Barbara, and oldest son, Jack II, from their home in North Palm Beach, Fla. to Baton Rouge, La., for the opening of his latest course, 18 holes in a lavish enclave called The Country Club of Louisiana. As his private jet, a Sabreliner 60, flew westward, Nicklaus discussed in detail the key elements of his final round of 65 at Augusta that had so stirred the sports world.

He began with the 9th hole. To that point he had played even-par golf. He was still two under for the tournament and five shots behind Greg Norman, the leader. Jack II, known as Jackie, a tall, blond 24-year-old who will soon turn professional himself, was his caddie. Sandy Lyle, the British Open champion, was his playing companion.

"The tournament started as I walked over the hill at 9," Nicklaus said. "I thought that if I shot 66 I'd tie, 65 I'd win, and nothing had happened so far to change my mind. Nobody had started off with a big rush. As I walked down the fairway, though, I thought, 'It's going to be difficult to shoot 30 on the back nine if I shoot 36 on the front, so I darn well better birdie 9.' "

Nicklaus's second shot landed on the green, 11 feet behind the hole. As he lined up his putt a roar rose from the eighth green. As he addressed the putt there came another roar. Playing two groups behind, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Kite had both holed wedges for eagle 3s.

"I turned to the gallery and said, 'O.K., let's see if we can get a roar up here.' They got a little laugh out of that and it relaxed me, too." Nicklaus sank the putt. He was three under.

"Now I've got 35. I need 31 on the back nine to have a chance. Thirty-one is unusual at Augusta, but it's not outside the range of possibility."

At the par-4 10th hole Nicklaus's drive flew down the right side of the fairway and into the gallery, where it hit a spectator and stopped. Neither the spectator nor Nicklaus's chance for a good second shot was damaged. His four-iron came to rest 25 feet short of the hole.

"It was short, but I was happy with the shot. For some reason, as I looked at the putt it just looked like I was going to make it. I hit the ball. It rolled. I looked at it. It kept going. Right in the hole." Birdie, and now he was four under.

At the par-4 11th, a drive and an eight-iron put Nicklaus on the green 22 feet to the right of the hole. Lyle chipped onto the green and marked his ball.

"Sandy used a marker that was off the back of his glove, one of those little things you stick in the ground. It showed up pretty well. I asked him to move it one clubhead to the side, and I ran the ball just about an inch inside it. From the time I hit it and it started rolling, I said, 'That may just go in.' And it did, dead center." Now he was five under.

The crowd around the 12th tee is always the largest even when nothing special is going on. When Jack Nicklaus has just birdied three holes in a row, the place goes berserk.

"The hardest thing at Augusta is coming to the 12th tee pumped up. It leaves so much room for danger. If you shy off even a shade to the right you're going to catch the bank and go in the water, and if you shade off a little to the left, you can go into the back bunkers. There was a little wind coming up, and it was in our face. It was 162 yards to the hole. If I hit a six and pulled it, I'd end up in the back bunkers. So I said, 'Let's hit a seven.' I made sure I hit it far enough left that I wasn't going to put the ball in the water, but I hit a little farther left than I wanted to. It landed on the back fringe. From there I played a pitching wedge and got unlucky. The ball kicked a little left and ran a ridge that's on the back side of the green rather than running over the ridge and down to the hole." He missed the putt—it hit a spike mark—and the bogey dropped him back to four under.

"I think that may have been the hole that won the tournament for me. It gave me a totally different perspective going into 13. It forced me to approach 13 aggressively."

The fairway at the par-5 13th bends to the left 250 yards off the tee. Using a three-wood, Nicklaus cut the corner extremely close to the overhanging trees.

"You know how sometimes you hit a ball in the sky and you lose it? I never saw the ball at all. If you don't hit the ball real solid it'll hit the trees and it won't carry them. But I hit the ball solid. It had enough on it to turn the corner, which turned out to be perfect."

A three-iron to the green, 30 feet short of the hole, a long putt that didn't break enough and a tap-in gave Nicklaus an easy birdie. He was five under again.

"I walked over to the 14th tee, looked up at the leader board and noticed that only Seve and Tom were ahead of me. There were several guys tied with me, but I didn't even look to see who they were. I knew I was going to keep making birdies—or that I had to keep making birdies. I felt both ways."

The second shot at 14 left Nicklaus with an awkward chip from 12 feet off the back of the green.

"Chipping has always been tough for me, one of the weaker parts of my game, but I had watched how Jackie had gone from a not very good short game to an excellent short game because of what Chi Chi Rodriguez had taught him. I tried some shots the way he was playing them and it started working for me. I hit a little pitch-and-run with a sand wedge, and when I saw the ball rolling I said, 'That has a good chance of going in.' It stopped a foot short of the hole, but I had the confidence. It's something I've rarely had." Par.

On the par-5 15th Nicklaus hit a perfect drive. In ideal position, 202 yards from the green, Nicklaus chose a four-iron. "I hit the four-iron and it never left the flag. It just covered it, and the ball came into the green moving slightly right to left. It landed about 18 inches short of the hole and ran 12 feet by. As I walked down on the green I knew I had to make the putt if I wanted to have a chance to win. I already knew that Seve had eagled 13. Even though the pin was not in the same place, I remembered the putt I had in '75 when I left it short. I didn't hit it strong enough and the ball broke off on me. So this time I made sure that I didn't let the ball break off." Eagle. Seven under.

At the short 16th hole, 179 yards over a pond, Nickaus hit a five-iron that was nearly a hole in one. "I was about to select a six-iron 'cause I was pretty pumped up. Then I decided a five would be better because the whole back side of that green is a backstop. Anything you carry past the pin will come right back to it. So I hit a nice smooth five."

While the ball was still in the air, Nicklaus leaned down to pick up his tee. "People said to me later, 'Jack, you didn't even look at it. Couldn't you see it?' The reason was I saw the ball was on the flag, and I knew by the reaction of the crowd that I nearly made a hole in one. From the tee you couldn't see the ball in the hollow where the pin was."

The putt coming back was only 3½ feet, but years of experience went into it. "The thing I was really conscious of those last nine holes was keeping my head still and being aggressive with the putter, which was a new model, with a blade twice as large as my old putter. All week people, including Barbara, had told me I was moving my head when I putted. After the second round my friend Bob Hoag said, 'You always told me to tell you, so I am. You're moving your head.' The next day Tom Weiskopf came up and said, 'Mind if I say something? You're moving your head.'

"That convinced me. The aggressiveness came a week before at a USGA dinner in Atlanta. They showed a film of highlights of my four Open wins, including a 22-foot putt I made at Baltusrol in 1967 to break Hogan's record. I took the putter back only four or five inches, but I must have gone through it 18 inches. I really popped the ball. I hadn't been doing that in recent years." The birdie at 16 put Nicklaus eight under.

"Going from the 16th green to the 17th tee people were yelling, screaming, banging me on the back. I was really a little bit concerned about getting hurt. I didn't want somebody to knock me down or something. It was the same in 1980 at the Open at Baltusrol. You knew you had golf to play and you appreciated what the people were doing, but you also had to sort of semiprotect yourself getting through the gallery."

At the 17th Nicklaus was about to hit his tee shot when all of a sudden a big roar went up at 15. "But it was a funny roar. I assumed it was Seve, and I said to Jackie, 'Either he holed it or he knocked it in the water.' I didn't know till after I'd hit my tee shot, but then about 400 people told me very quickly. I watched the replay the next day and it was not a good golf swing that I saw Seve make. It was unusual for him. He lacked aggression. He sort of quit on it. It reminded me of most of the shots I've played this year."

The crucial shot at 17 was the second. Nicklaus's drive, aimed left, had traveled too far left, into the gallery 125 yards from the hole. "I was underneath the trees and I had a little branch to worry about. Normally I would play a nine-iron, but I was pumped up enough I felt a wedge was right. Since the pin was in the back, I'd rather err on the short side than the long."

The wedge shot hit pin-high and drew back 11 feet. "We got on the green, looked at the putt, but before that I noticed that Seve was eight under. He'd bogeyed 15, so I knew that this putt would give me the lead. If I could make it. It was a two-break putt. I thought first of a straight putt. Jackie thought maybe it was a couple of inches outside the left edge of the hole. I ended up compromising, picking the left edge of the hole as my line. The ball broke right and then turned immediately back to the left and went in, absolutely dead center." Nine under.

"Eighteen is a hole you can mess up if you play it conservatively. I said, 'Let's hit a three-wood and hit a three-wood hard.' You don't want to be playing with the bunkers, but you want to make sure you get it up where you can play a shot. I walked up to the ball and my glove started sticking to my grip, so I had to walk away and regrip. That allowed me to compose myself again."

The tee shot landed just where Nicklaus wanted it. With 179 yards left, little or no wind and a five-iron in his hands, Nicklaus aimed for the upper level of the two-tiered green where the pin was set. "The last place I wanted to hit the ball was short. I hit the shot as well as I can hit a five-iron and I thought that it was perfect."

As the ball rose, though, so did a small breeze that slowed the shot. The ball hit the green six feet below the top of the upper tier and rolled back down. "Exactly where I did not want to be. I'd rather have been just behind the green chipping than short. I wanted to make sure I got the putt up to the hole, and I didn't worry too much about being beyond it. When I hit the putt and saw it go over the hill I said, 'That's going to be close,' and frankly I thought I had made it, but it stopped about four inches short. I sort of slumped, I guess, and everybody said later, 'What was that from? Happiness?' I said, 'No. I thought I'd made the putt.' Another putt. You never know. You might need it."

After tapping in for par and a 65 for the round—30 for the last nine—shaking hands with Lyle and Lyle's caddie and bearhugging his long-legged caddie son, he signed his card and headed for one of the cottages near the 10th tee to watch his pursuers on TV. He paced, drank a glass of water, sat down to watch Kite's 12-foot putt for a tie stop short, did a few floor exercises to keep his back loose for a playoff, then stood and paced and stood some more as Norman's last chance came and went. Then it was over. Jackie walked up and over the back of a couch that separated him from his father and hugged him again. Barbara kissed him and got lipstick on his collar. "Oh, well, at least it's mine," she said.

The plane was slowing for its approach to the Baton Rouge airport now. Barbara, who had been leafing through a six-inch stack of congratulatory letters, read aloud from one of them. "The December of your career was really the January of your future."

Jack laughed. "When people talk about the December of my career I go along with it. I have fun with it and I kid with people about it. It's only logical. I am near the end of my career. But as long as I'm competitive I'm going to keep playing golf. I'll tell you one thing. Shinnecock Hills suddenly has gone from being a very nice golf course and a nice place to play the U.S. Open to a much different thing in my mind. If you know what I mean."



Jack I counted on Jack II to help him read putts at Augusta and on Barbara to adjust his black tie before dinner in Baton Rouge.



[See caption above.]



15th HOLE 500 Yards, Par 5: "When I hit the four-iron, it never left the flag. The ball came into the green slightly right to left, landed about 18 inches short of the hole and ran 12 feet by. I knew as I walked on the green I had to make the putt for an eagle if I wanted to win."



16th HOLE 170 Yards, Par 3: "I hit a nice smooth five-iron. I couldn't see the ball from the tee, but I could tell from the reaction of the crowd that I nearly made a hole in one."



18th HOLE 405 Yards, Par 4: "When I hit the putt [Nicklaus used a new jumbo putter at Augusta instead of the old blade model] and saw the ball go over the hill, frankly I thought I had made it."