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 ROBERT GREEN
 Another Thing

Playing a major game ‘if only’
The 1986 Masters will go down in history as one of the most memorable major championships ever played, mostly because of how Jack Nicklaus won it. But, such is sport, it so nearly might not have happened

In our last issue we reflected on six epic Masters Tournaments. One of them was that won in 1986, at the age of 46, his sixth in all, by Jack Nicklaus. It was truly extraordinary. One might be tempted to say it was inexplicable except that any man who records an eagle and six birdies over the last 10 holes at Augusta in order to win has manifestly done the explaining with his clubs.

In the context of both his career and that victory, it is often overlooked that in claiming his 18th major championship, Nicklaus had completed the Grand Slam beginning at the age of 38 – the Open (1978) and the US Open and USPGA (both 1980) had been Nos. 15-17. It was an amazing feat indeed. But what if?…

Consider Seve Ballesteros. In the middle of the fairway on the 15th hole after a fabulous drive, he was nine under par and had a two-shot lead over the field, including over Nicklaus. But Jack was about to complete the formality of a tap-in for a birdie on the 16th and Seve’s lie was a bit awkward, he was between clubs, and through a combination of unfortunate reasons he was severely short of tournament practice - he’d had only nine competitive rounds all year. Still, he was Seve, he’d won the Masters twice before, and he’d already had two eagles this afternoon. This might not be a third but a birdie four seemed almost inevitable. That would pretty much be tournament over, surely? But his 4-iron was dreadfully weak and into the pond. He bogeyed the hole, then the 17th as well, and didn’t even finish runner-up.

What would have happened to Seve if he had won? Obviously, I’ve no clue. On the plus side, he did win another major, the 1988 Open, and the year before he had been magnificent and inspirational as Europe won the Ryder Cup for the first time in America – at Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village course. But as he said many years later: “I think that if I had hit the green instead of the water, I

would have won maybe six Masters.” Some other guy got that prize.

Two men tied for second in ’86, a shot behind Nicklaus. First up was Tom Kite, Seve’s last-round playing partner. Having trailed the Spaniard for most of the afternoon, he led him as they stood on the 18th tee. When he hit his approach shot to within eight feet of the stick, he had a birdie putt that would enable him to match Nicklaus’ total of 279. He hit the putt he wanted and got the result he didn’t. “I made that putt,” he spluttered afterwards. “It just didn’t go in. For some reason, it went left. How it did what it did, I’ll never know.”

Kite finally did win a major, the US Open at Pebble Beach in 1992 – the one that Nicklaus, by then working in the TV booth, prematurely and mistakenly offered to an early-finishing Colin Montgomerie (Monty, of course, is still waiting) – but had he done the business at Augusta, for example, he might not have lost the 1989 US Open which he so spectacularly blew.

Tied with Kite was Greg Norman. Like Kite, he hadn’t won a major at this point. This was to be the year of his Saturday Slam – he led all four majors after 54 holes, converting one, the Open at Turnberry. At Augusta, the opposite of Kite’s ball, his critical one went right. Playing in the last group but seemingly out of contention while Nicklaus was producing his pyrotechnics, Norman had birdied four consecutive holes from the 14th. On the final tee, he was tied for the lead. A par four would give the Shark a playoff with the Bear. Then caution kicked in. Norman went with a 3-wood rather than the driver and, as Seve had at 15, he was left holding a 4-iron to get home.

There’s no water on the 18th at Augusta but instead Greg found the gallery well wide of the green. From there, he never looked like salvaging his par. The Masters miracle had occurred – Nicklaus had done it. Norman won the Open Championship again, in 1993, but (astonishingly given the opportunities he had and the talent he possessed) he never claimed an American major. One has to figure that further green jackets, perhaps including the one he gifted to Nick Faldo in 1996, might have been his had events turned out differently 25 years ago.

And consider Jack himself. Had he left Augusta that evening without another green jacket, as everyone expected when they’d arrived at the club earlier that day, he’d ‘only’ have won 17 majors. He’d still be the greatest golfer in history but, hey, it would have made Tiger’s attempt to overtake him that little bit easier.

May 2011

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

 






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