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One for the Ages
Jack Nicklaus and the 1986 Masters
By Tom Clavin
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2011 Tom Clavin
All rights reserved.
If Jack Nicklaus didn't feel the weight of age on his shoulders when he woke up that morning, he might have during the official starter ceremony to begin the 1986 Masters, the fiftieth in the tournament's history. The starters were two older legends, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead, who represented the first two great generations of American players. Well over a decade ago, Nicklaus had surpassed both of them in majors championships won — in fact, he had collected more majors than Sarazen and Snead combined.
The tradition of honorary starters opening the Masters began with Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod, who won the first two PGA Seniors Championships in 1937 and 1938, respectively. Fittingly, these two gentlemen hit the first ceremonial tee shots at the Masters in 1963, when Nicklaus won his first green jacket. Hutchison continued the honors through 1973, and McLeod's final appearance was in 1976. After a gap of a few years, Byron Nelson and Sarazen revived the tradition in 1981. For just one year, in 1983, Ken Venturi was a ceremonial starter — an odd pick, given that he had not won a Masters and was only fifty-one at the time. The following year Snead signed on as the third ceremonial starter with Nelson and Sarazen. For the 1986 Masters, the seventy-four-year-old Nelson was unable to participate, leaving the now-traditional task to Sarazen and Snead. The man known as the Squire was wearing, as he always did on the golf course, knickers (this time cream-colored ones), and the dapper Snead, who during his career had been dubbed the Slammer, was wearing a red sweater and his signature straw hat.
Sarazen had been born in 1902. That was the same year as Bobby Jones, whose influence was still deeply felt at Augusta National even fifteen years after his death. Sarazen and Jones and Walter Hagen — almost ten years older, but he kept winning into his forties — had been the players to beat in their various tournaments, beginning when Sir Walter won his first U.S. Open in 1914. They had dueled each other in U.S. Opens and British Opens and in tense exhibition matches over the years, with Sarazen the last one of the three to capture one of the Opens, the British in 1932. With the fast pace of U.S. sports, this was ancient history by the mid-1980s. Yet here was the Squire, a pugnacious five foot five, about to strike his ball on the first tee fifty-one years after his first Masters.
Snead, along with Nelson and Ben Hogan — all born in 1912 — had been the next generation of players to beat beginning in the late 1930s. It was hard, however, to view Snead as ancient history, even though he was a month shy of turning seventy-four years old. First of all, the Slammer looked great, and he still had the sweetest swing in golf. The face under the familiar hat was lined and weathered, but the eyes twinkled, and his language still had more salt in it than a bag of Georgia peanuts. Snead had played in the Masters until only three years previous and had long been a force at Augusta National. In 1963 it was Snead himself, then fifty-one, whom the twenty-three-year-old Nicklaus had had to battle down the stretch to win his first Masters. Snead was no lingering figure from the distant past. Instead, he was anticipating a perfect first-hole drive into the cool southwesterly breeze to warm the crowd at Augusta National.
If anything, it was not Snead but Jack Nicklaus whom many of the other players, reporters, broadcasters, and even a few Augusta National members considered to be a figure from an earlier time — maybe not the distant past but almost certainly the past. Even he had said, "After 1980, I was no longer the man to beat" on the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) Tour, and that turned out to include the majors. He had not won an official tournament of any kind in two years, and twenty majors had come and gone without him claiming victory.
To Nicklaus, the number of worldwide wins was a good yardstick of career achievement, and he had ninety-eight, with seventy-three of them on the PGA Tour. But it was victories in majors that defined greatness; Jack had nineteen — two U.S. Amateur Championships, five Masters titles, five PGA Championships, four U.S. Opens, and three British Opens. Jack had turned forty-six in January 1986 and had been competing professionally for twenty-four years. Along with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, he was a member of the third great triumvirate. That group's origins lay almost three decades in the past.
His last victory in a major had been in 1980. It was a thrilling one, the PGA Championship at Oak Hill in Rochester, the city that had produced Walter Hagen, who remained second on the list of number of professional majors won with eleven, despite almost half a century passing since his retirement. The PGA triumph had come only two months after Nicklaus won his eighteenth major, the U.S. Open at Baltusrol in New Jersey, when his 63 in the first round had tied the Open record set by Johnny Miller in 1973.
But the intervening years had seen one frustration after another in the majors, and every year began with another birthday. The year before, in 1985, it had seemed like little was left in the tank. His sixth-place finish at Augusta offered a glimmer of hope, especially his final-round 69. But at Oakland Hills in Michigan, where the ghost of Hagen truly lingered — he had been the club's first head pro — Nicklaus opened with a 76-73 and missed the U.S. Open cut. No happiness was to be found at Royal St. George's in England: he missed another British Open cut with rounds of 77 and 75. A tie for thirty-second in the PGA Championship at Cherry Hills in Colorado hardly revived his career. How ironic that it was at Cherry Hills that Nicklaus had first attracted widespread attention a quarter century ago, when as an amateur he had battled Ben Hogan and the eventual winner, Arnold Palmer, for the 1960 U.S. Open.
As the starter ceremony got under way, Sarazen was introduced; clearly, he enjoyed the applause. Ringing the tee box were reporters and photographers, wide-eyed spectators, several players, and members of the Tournament Committee (all in green jackets), including its chairman, Hord Hardin. The seventy-four-year-old, who revered the Masters traditions, had in 1980 become only the third chairman in the event's history.
The Squire blew on his hands, addressed the ball with his driver, and swung. The ball flew off to the left. There was a brief, awkward pause, and then Sarazen was allowed a mulligan. His next drive brought smiles to every face — the ball split the fairway. Even more generous applause followed.
Though not a vain man, Nicklaus had to wonder if he would ever again hear applause like what he had received while walking up the eighteenth fairway at Baltusrol in 1980. His previous U.S. Open title had been eight years earlier, at Pebble Beach, and because he was forty in 1980, not many people had given him a chance. But he had bookended that first-round 63 with a final-round 68 to win his fourth Open by two strokes over Isao Aoki, the best of a crop of good golfers Japan was exporting. Nicklaus locked up the tournament by sinking a birdie putt of twenty-two feet on 17. His 272 total had dashed the Open scoring record. "Jack is back! Jack is back!" the crowd had chanted, and it was posted on the scoreboard, too. He told them, "You'll never know how sweet it is." The PGA Championship had been icing on the cake — and his swan song, many now believed.
And then, as far as majors were concerned, Jack was indeed history. In his preview of the 1986 Masters in that past Sunday's sports section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tom McCollister had flatly declared, "Nicklaus is gone, done. He just doesn't have the game anymore. It's rusted from lack of use." He further emphasized, "He's 46, and nobody that old wins the Masters." When Jack and Barbara Nicklaus arrived at the house they rented for the week near Augusta National, the couple found that a friend of theirs, Tom Montgomery, had taped McCollister's article to the refrigerator door to tease Jack, or perhaps light a fire under him. Jack left it there.
McCollister was right about advanced age and the Masters. When Gary Player won his third green jacket in 1978, he was forty-two, and that was considered pretty grizzled. (The oldest man to win any major was Julius Boros, who won the PGA Championship at forty-eight in 1968. No one near that age had come close in a major since, and an asterisk on Boros's achievement is that the PGA event did not have the same stature as the three other major championships.) Here, in 1986, Jack was already four years older than the fitness fanatic Player had been, and some golf writers had tactfully pointed out that he was "paunchier" than before.
Arnold Palmer, who had played in his first Masters in 1955, had spoken jokingly about Nicklaus to a reporter at Augusta National. He recalled how Jack had once vowed to him that he would no longer be out there competing on golf courses and certainly not in the Masters at forty, and sure as heck not at forty-five. Arnold told the reporter he had responded, "Well, Jack, I hope you still come to Augusta so you can watch me play." When asked if at fifty-six he still could win a major, Arnold, always confident and still swaggering, replied, "Sure. You just need everything to go right just that one weekend."
Now it was Snead's turn to tee off. He too blew on his hands, then made the familiar sweet swing. When he was in his prime, the Slammer's swing had been admired and envied by every golfer. He didn't disappoint this morning; his ball bounced down the fairway past Sarazen's.
Eighty-eight players — ten of them amateurs — were waiting, and now the fiftieth Masters Tournament could begin. It had come a long way in a half century from truly humble beginnings, and some must have wondered if anything in its present or future could compete with the many thrills for which the Masters was already known.CHAPTER 2
Few sports champions were as revered as Robert Tyre "Bobby" Jones Jr., born in Atlanta on March 17, 1902. Jones suffered from various ailments as a young boy, for which learning and playing golf were prescribed. He was coached by Stewart Maiden, a Scottish club professional, at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. He was also schooled by his father, Colonel Robert P. Jones, who was himself a very good player.
Robert Jr. won his first children's tournament at age six. He began to receive national attention at fourteen when he lasted into the third round of the U.S. Amateur Championship. At that same age he won the Georgia Amateur Championship, and the next year, 1917, he won the Southern Amateur for the first time (he would win the event again in 1920 and 1922). After touring the United States with Alexa Stirling and others to do exhibition matches as Red Cross and other war-relief fundraisers during World War I, Jones took a step onto the international stage by being on the American team that defeated Canada in matches in 1919 and 1920. He tied for second in the 1919 Canadian Open. He was eighteen when he qualified for the U.S. Open in 1920, and for the first two rounds he was paired with Harry Vardon, from the island of Jersey, who had six British Open victories and had won the U.S. Open in 1900. Jones was also on the U.S. team at the inaugural Walker Cup Match in 1922; the Americans defeated the British squad at National Golf Links in Southampton, New York. (To this day, that first Walker Cup Match remains the only major international event ever played at what is still judged annually as one of the best courses in the United States.)
Certainly, winning helped to elevate Jones to heroic status. At age twenty-one, at the Inwood Country Club in Inwood, New York, he won his first U.S. Open. He won his second Open in 1926 at the Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio — witnessed by thirteen-year-old Charles Nicklaus, Jack's father. He won a third Open in a playoff in 1929, and as part of what came to be known as the Grand Slam, he captured his fourth Open in 1930. It would be twenty-three years before another player won four Opens: Ben Hogan.
Jones also won three British Opens and was especially admired at the "home of golf," St. Andrews, where he won his second Claret Jug in 1927. As an amateur he was not eligible for the PGA Championship, but he won five U.S. Amateur Championships and a British Amateur, considered majors at the time. He won thirteen of the twenty major tournaments he entered, a career winning percentage that has never been duplicated. Even more remarkable, of the last twelve Open championships he played — nine U.S. Opens and three British Opens — he finished first or second in eleven of them. And, of course, he was four-for-four in 1930, earning the so-called Grand Slam. Twice he was given ticker-tape parades in New York City.
Yet more than championships awed the public. Jones steadfastly clung to his amateur status throughout the 1920s, and that was seen as virtuous. During the same decade, Walter Hagen earned four British Opens and five PGA Championships to go with U.S. Open victories in 1914 and 1919; the flamboyant "Haig" was popular among most golf fans, but as a professional who played for money, he wasn't given the reverence Jones was. Jones's stature was also enhanced by his reputation for honesty and loyalty to his wife and family — especially when he was compared with the hard-partying, skirt-chasing Hagen. Being a handsome man who looked quite the boyish gentleman in news photographs was an advantage too.
After the Grand Slam, at only twenty-eight, exhausted by the strain and attention of his achievement, Jones retired to Atlanta to attend to his family and his law practice. The departure was enormously disappointing to sports fans. When it was announced three years later that he would play competitively again in a tournament at a golf course he and a partner were building in Augusta, Georgia, that was cause for rejoicing.
The partner was Clifford Roberts. He had been born in 1894 on a farm in Iowa, and his full name was actually the much stuffier Charles DeClifford Roberts Jr. His parents had five children, which was an achievement considering that his father was almost always on the road chasing numerous projects that would make the family rich. He never found the right one.
Unlike Bobby Jones, who would always call Georgia home, Roberts had an itinerant childhood, with the Roberts family moving around to follow the father's next financial expedition. When Clifford was nineteen and the family was living in Texas, his mother committed suicide with a shotgun. After his father remarried a much younger woman, Clifford decided it was time to hit the road himself — as a traveling salesman. Then in 1917 he went to seek his fortune in New York City. He didn't find it but instead found himself broke. It was probably a blessing that he was drafted into the army. He was in France for only a month when World War I ended in November 1918. When he was back in the States the following year, Roberts took another shot at New York. This time he stayed, working in the stock market. He became a fairly successful businessman during the Roaring Twenties. He stayed in the business even after significant losses in the 1929 stock market crash and during the next few years after that.
Roberts had taken up golf in the 1920s and was a member of the Knoll-wood Country Club in Westchester County. He first met Bobby Jones when the latter played an exhibition match there in 1925. The following year the U.S. Amateur Championship was held at the Baltusrol course in New Jersey, and Roberts was there for the final match, in which George Von Elm beat Jones 2 and 1. Roberts was among several men who joined Jones for a consolation drink. A good friendship was formed, and Roberts and Jones kept in touch in the ensuing years.
During the coldest months in New York, Roberts took trips to Augusta, Georgia, to play golf. In the winter of 1929–30, he and Jones were both vacationing at the Bon Air–Vanderbilt Hotel, and it is likely there that they first discussed building a course in Augusta. The discussions between the two men became more serious after Jones earned the Grand Slam and the celebrity that went with it. He believed that a golf course elsewhere than Atlanta would give him and his family some privacy while he played golf only for enjoyment and male camaraderie.
Excerpted from One for the Ages by Tom Clavin. Copyright © 2011 Tom Clavin. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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