Happy Jack: Nicklaus and the Masters

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"The decibel level when Jack Nicklaus makes an eagle just shakes the trees." -- Ben Crenshaw

This week's Masters marks the 25th anniversary of the most significant victory in the history of golf's preeminent event. The 1986 Masters -- the 50th at Augusta National Golf Club -- was won by the great Jack Nicklaus, of course. A new book, One for the Ages (Chicago Review Press), provides an account of a golf tournament that somehow made the finest player in golf history even more legendary.

Author Tom Clavin divides the book into sections named for the dates of each round, starting with April 10, 1986. But this is merely a formula for building toward a climax no golfer, golf fan, or golf pundit could have anticipated.

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Upon his arrival at Augusta in 1986, Nicklaus -- 46 years old at the time -- already owned a record 17 major titles as a pro, including five Green Jackets as Masters champ. But he hadn't won at Augusta in 11 years, and hadn't won a major of any kind since the 1980 PGA Championship when, at age 40, he was already considered on the down side of his prime. In addition to American pros like Ben Crenshaw, Fuzzy Zoeller, and Fred Couples, an influx of foreign talent -- including recent Masters champions Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer -- made the Masters field a veritable gauntlet for any golfer, let alone one whose best days were apparently a decade behind him.

One for the Ages takes the Masters (as institution) as seriously as it takes the Nicklaus legend, providing an historical frame for the brainchild of Bobby Jones, and detailing the relationship between player and golf course that proved so mutually beneficial to the Golden Bear and the only golf major to be played annually at the same club. Clavin contrasts the Masters with golf's other three majors, each of them older, but each played on a rotation of renowned courses. The result is what amounts to a personality profile of Augusta National, 18 holes that come to life around golf's greatest names, 18 holes that seem to especially embrace Jack Nicklaus. Says Gary Player (a three-time Masters champion), as quoted by Clavin: "When I think of Augusta, I think of great beauty. I've always said if they have a golf course like this in heaven, I hope I'm the golf pro there one day."

Nicklaus hardly dominated the 1986 Masters, at least not until late in Sunday's final round. Bill Kratzert and Ken Green set the pace on Thursday, with the Golden Bear six strokes off the lead. Nicklaus trailed Seve Ballesteros by six strokes after the second round, then found himself four shots behind Greg Norman after three. (Nick Price's 63 stole the show on Saturday, overshadowing any TV coverage for the lurking Bear.) The drama on Sunday -- Nicklaus trailed by six strokes with 10 holes to play -- makes the last quarter of Clavin’s book impossible to put down.

Nicklaus's first Masters championship (in 1963) came 11 years after Sam Snead won his second. His last Masters title (23 years later) came 11 years before Tiger Woods won his first. With four Green Jackets in between, Jack Nicklaus is as much a part of this event as the Hogan Bridge or Amen Corner. At one point, Clavin describes his subject as "a ghost of Masters past come back to life." One for the Ages brings to life a course, a man, and a tournament that, for a special weekend 25 years ago, was more masterful than ever.

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