Jack Nicklaus heads into Masters as history-making champion

The Masters Tournament, golf's beauteous showpiece, tees off for the 51st time Thursday with people still exclaiming about last year's memorable finish. Jack William Nicklaus, you will recall, defied the critics and Father Time to become the oldest Masters champion at 46. Counting two United States amateur championships, it was his 20th major title, by far a record, and his sixth Masters, also by far a record.

Twenty-one players entered the last round bunched within five strokes of Greg Norman's lead, and 20 of them were given a better chance than the long-slumping Nicklaus.

He was too old, he was spending too much time on his outside business interests, he couldn't putt his way out of a sandwich wrapper (tastefully colored green at the Augusta National Golf Club like almost everything else).

So Nicklaus scorched the closing 10 holes in just 33 strokes, charging to an eagle at 15, and birdies at 16 and 17. He won by a shot, and it may have been the most exciting conclusion in the history of a centuries-old game.

Millions of Americans suddenly felt 25 years younger, Nicklaus among them.

What did the dramatic victory do for his long and storied career?

``It left me in a position to leave the tour on a high note. I've cut my schedule down to about 10 events, which is something I'd been wanting to do but couldn't bring myself to do when I wasn't winning.

``I no longer consider myself a regular tour player. I'm more of a ceremonial player now. I will play the majors and a few tournaments that I need to play so that if I happen to play well in the majors I'll be competitive.''

Can Nicklaus remain competitive on such a limited schedule?

``As I get older I find I have to play enough golf so that even if I'm not playing particularly well, I still can manage my game well enough to get around the course. I find I can think my way through a round and score decently when I'm not hitting the ball well.

``Certainly I have prepared seriously for the Masters, though I haven't had a busy or successful year so far. But I'd won only $4,000 last year going into Augusta. I'm trying to have the best of two worlds without knowing at this point exactly what that is.

``I just know I can't stay interested playing every week. Reducing my schedule somewhat a few years ago enabled me to keep up my interest level and win the Masters again. I think I owe it to the game to stay involved. And when I get to Augusta I will be plenty interested.''

What is Jack's overriding memory of the 1986 Masters?

``What comes back over me is that my golf game got 15 years younger during a 10-hole period. I made a putt at nine, made another putt at 10, and all of a sudden I was playing in yesteryear. I was playing the way I knew how to play - like a fellow I remembered.

``Once I got rolling, nothing was very hard to do. My years of experience allowed me to keep my composure at the end. It all was just an instant.''

What's been the reaction from the public in the past year?

``It started with the ovations at the end, when I was coming up the 18th fairway and then holing out and hugging my son Jackie, my caddie, and it hasn't stopped.

``The amount of conversation about it is unbelievable. It's continuing right on today. And the mail is difficult to keep up with even now. I received an awful lot of mail after I won the US Open at Baltusrol in 1980, but it wasn't a 20th of the mail I've received from this last Masters.''

Does he recall tears coming to his eyes on 18?

``Yes, but I'm that way. My son, Steve, got married a few weeks ago, and I couldn't even get through the rehearsal without crying.''

On a more commercial note, Nicklaus's golf equipment company has sold more than 125,000 of the oversize putters like the one he used here.

``It's been a tremendous profit item,'' he says.

Can Nicklaus win the Masters again?

``Oh yeah, I don't see any reason why not. I'm as ready as I was a year ago. I hadn't competed well last year, but it didn't make any difference once I got myself in gear. Memories came back very quickly of how to play.''

Memories come back very quickly of the thrilling masterpiece Nicklaus gave the sporting world last year. Oh, yes. He is the only man ever to win the Masters in successive years, in 1965 and '66.

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