The Masters is as close to theatre as you can get. The stage is spectacular. With its magnolias, large powerful oaks, and blooming azaleas, Augusta National is more like a botanical garden than a golf course. Every corner of this course is a perfect theatrical setting for golf — a set designer’s dream, but the “set designer” was also the immortal golfer, Bobby Jones.
It was in Augusta in 1986…
At No. 2, a par 5, thousands of fans are perched on the gigantic mounds around the green and line the fairways. The players, some in knickers, others in vivid colors and, of course, some in dark, subdued hues, leaving the magnificent Augusta National clubhouse, just as actors leave the sanctity of backstage. Smiling as they are greeted by the enthusiastic crowds, they come on stage to play their most exciting role of the year.
Act 1: The glamorous leading man, Seve Ballesteros, enters and dominates stage center. The flamboyant Spaniard, the perfect matinee idol, is magnificent — Wide shoulders, chiseled profile, With a determined charge to his Walk. This fine athlete hits the ball With such grace and authority that it’s sheer joy for us mere mortals to Watch. His appeal to the ladies is all too understandable. Valentino, Gable, Power had nothing on this guy, Whose every move and gesture, designed or not, Whips the ladies into a frenzy.
Off to stage left is Tom Kite charming, curly-haired, always the perfect gentleman, the straight man — certainly not the star and almost unreal With his demeanor. A great golfer and always a top money winner, but never dominating center stage.
Sunday, the 8th, my wife, Judy, and I are following Ballesteros and Kite. The former is leading the tournament and he knows it. We make our Way behind the green at No. 9. Seve is on a knoll on the right side of the green. Tom hits a 9 iron and it takes two big and two small bounces and rolls into the hole for an eagle. I leave my feet as the full audience roars its approval.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch Seve’s eyes riveted to the green as if he Was memorizing the flight of Kite’s shot. Then he disappears from sight and moments later his ball heads for the green. The crowd is hushed with anticipation as the ball hits the green an inch or two from where Tom’s ball landed then 2 large and 2 small bounces, and it rolls into the cup. I just stand there in disbelief, as the crowd gives forth With the most tremendous roar I had ever heard in all my life — to that point. They both eagled! It appeared that Kite was just once again upstaged by Seve. At that exact moment, on 9, Jack Nicklaus, the 46-year-old has been, remarks to the crowd — knowing full well that both and Kite had eagled — “Can you roar as loud as that if l sink this?” He did — and they did!
Act 2: Seve bogied 9 but still had a commanding lead — almost insurmountable. Only Kite and Norman stood a chance. I was eating a pimento cheese sandwich along side the N0. 8 tee when a roar came form No. 13. I knew it was Jack, so Judy and I began working our way over to our usual spot on No. 15. Little was I to know that I was walking towards a spot that would enable me to personally witness and experience the greatest moment in sports history.
Nicklaus birdied again. Each roar brought thousands of people running to see what the heck was going on. Jack hit a good drive on 15 and certainly had a chance to put it on in two, and When he pulled out a long iron the crowd murmured with anticipation. He soon backed away with his familiar MacGregor 4-iron. Then Jack made his usual great move through the ball as 50,000 eyes Watched its descent. The moment it landed a deepening roar that probably could have been heard in Atlanta, so electrified the crowd that at that exact moment Augusta National, its setting, Seve, Kite, Norman, the people — everything and everyone disappeared. From that moment on there was only one person out there. Enter Jack Nicklaus - Center Stage!
He made the putt for eagle, and the roar turned to tears. Men and women started to cry, kids just started to scream. You had to be thereto believe it — Thomson’s home run, Namath and the Super Bowl, Larry Bird’s great 3 points, Providence College Winning the NIT in 1960, North Carolina State the NCAA in 1985. Nothing I had ever experienced in life had prepared me for the next 56 minutes.
Act 3: For the next 56 minutes, it was a wave of people. Within seconds thousands upon thousands of people surrounded the par 5 16th. We couldn’t even get close. We decided on the big hill to the left of 17 Where We could see the 17th green and the 15th. We had just made it to the top of the hill as Seve was about to hit his second shot. He had to be affected by What Nicklaus Was doing. He seemed to have a problem With his club selection, and he hooked the ball into the middle of the lake. There was an instant roar that only lasted for a few seconds — not because he had hit a bad shot, but because their hero, Jack, actually had a chance to win. The tension and excitement increased beyond anything I had ever experienced. We could not see the 16th tee or green from our vantage point on 17, just the gigantic scoreboard that looked like a marquee:
Yes — Nicklaus did have a chance.
Then it happened. The roar of the crowd on 16 that had to be heard around the World. In every living room in America people Were jumping out of their couches and favorite chairs, letting out with their very best yell. Nicklaus almost aced 16. He had a tap-in for birdie, but those of us at No. 17 didn’t know for sure.
All hell broke loose in and around 16 and this little old lady screamed “it’s a hole in one!” Judy and I just stood there in shock for at least 4 to 5 minutes. Thousands of people at Augusta National had thought that Jack’s shot went in - then another deafening roar as the scoreboard confirmed that he had birdied 16.
Not even “Arnie’s Army” could compare to Jack’s friends at Augusta. Everyone on that golf course was rooting for Nicklaus. Jack Was visibly overcome with emotion walking up 17. Shots of “Go, Jack!” from screaming well-wishers were just too much. I didn’t believe he could possibly maintain his composure. I was wrong. His second shot from the trampled rough on 17 was typical. Nicklaus’ shot poetry in motion. As soon as it left the club everyone knew it was going to be a good shot. What we didn’t know was that it was going to be an almost perfect shot — about 15 feet from the pin, the only area that gave him a shot at making the putt. Jack, Jr. stood behind him as he lined up the putt. What a picture — the father and son making history together! The confidence Jack must have in his son - the closeness, the love! I had to hold back the tears. Many did not.
When the putt Went in I threw my right fist into the sky in some defiant Way. It was as if I personally made that putt go in. Then it all became very clear. 40,000 people at Augusta and people all over the world had wished that putt in the hole. There was no other explanation, and as they all ran towards 18, I Was suddenly convinced that Jack and Jack alone would don the green jacket. So was everyone else, including Kite and Norman.
Jack’s final putt on 18 almost went in, but the crowd was not going to be denied the drama of Kite’s missed putt and Norman’s pushed second shot on No. 18. (Norman had done the same thing on the 72nd hole at the US Open at Winged Foot two years ago.) When Jack tapped in on everything for a back-nine 50, we all heard the FINAL ROAR. Jack acknowledged the fans, then turned and walked towards his son. As they embraced, everyone cried. It Was just too beautiful. I will never forget that day in Augusta, and I will never leave before the final curtain call.
Thanks Jack for a great performance.