The day the rooster crowed and The Bear prowled at Augusta

Jack Nicklaus won his final major golf championship and his sixth Masters on April 13, 1986. The following was written by me on April 10, 2011. I made a few date changes to bring it up our current time as the Masters once again gets under way. Enjoy!!!

Morning came early that Sunday 38 years ago. Mornings often came early 38 years ago because the evenings often ended late.

So when the cock crowed that spring morning, announcing to everyone within earshot that the sun was spreading its first rays upon the pines-laden landscape of sleepy Martinez, Ga., the rooster also cruelly awakened the pounding within the brain that occurs as the body tries to rid itself of the poisons it had imbibed just a few hours earlier.

There was nothing about Mother Nature’s cocky alarm clock that could portend to the circumstances that would evolve beginning 10 hours later down the road at the Augusta National Golf Club. In retrospect, the crows should have served as a warning to the eight golfers ahead and six golfers who shared ninth place with a 46-year-old master whose clubs, many felt, did not have enough winning shots, if any, left in them.

Publicly, those 14 golfers tied with or ahead of Jack Nicklaus that glorious 13th of April morning in 1986 would have been polite if asked about his chances of donning the often-tailored green jacket for the sixth time and that he first won in 1963.

Privately, many of them didn’t give Nicklaus a chance and some golf scribes already were assembling his golf-career obituary.

If all of them had heard and heeded the same rooster’s warning, they would have reached for the same aspirin bottle that eased this writer’s pain and allowed his creative juices to flow when the Golden Bear prowled the 382-acre former nursery to shoot a remarkable 65 that left the other players in his wake and the writers searching for words.

How do you explain the unexplainable?

You can’t. So you just go with the flow.

The six golfers who shared ninth place with Nicklaus weren’t exactly chopped liver: Dave Edwards, Gary Koch, Bob Tway, Corey Pavin, Mark McCumber and Sandy Lyle, the Scot who was paired with NIcklaus, his boyhood hero. Lyle, Pavin and Tway would later win majors.

Of the eight ahead of Nicklaus, six are in the Hall of Fame: Tom Watson (two shots ahead), Tom Kite (two ahead), Bernhard Langer (three), Nick Price (three), Seve Ballesteros (three) and third-round leader Greg Norman (four).  As he would later reveal, it was not the margin of the deficit that worried Nicklaus but the number of golfers around and ahead of him that might have something more to say than any number he would post – and eldest son Steve told his Papa Bear that he thought a 65 would do.

Now golf writers often share rounds at a bar after rounds at the golf course, and there were quite a few scribes arguing that same point between gulps and sips. No way was a 46-year-old man, who hadn’t competed worth a lick since the 1982 U.S. Open, going to win at Augusta National.

It had been 1980 since the Golden Bear had reached the winner’s circle in a major, and he did it twice within three months, winning the U.S. Open for the second time at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., and then capturing the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y.

Nicklaus was in the midst of a horrendous slump in 1985 when he flew his private jet every day from his summer home in Muirfield Village, Ohio, to watch his namesake, Jackie, play in the Western Amateur outside Benton Harbor, Mich. Jack also was in the midst of an “Eat-to-Win” diet that had brought his weight south of 180 pounds. But when he saw a sportswriter licking a butter pecan waffle cone, he said, “Ooh, I love butter pecan.” 

End of diet.

Later, Nicklaus and the writer talked between their ice-cream cone licks and the golfer acknowledged his best days, like those in 1980, were behind him as they watched Jackie putting out on the 11th hole.

“But you know,” Nicklaus said after taking another lick, “I’m not done yet.”

And with Jackie carrying his bag the following spring, you just hoped the krypton colors of the Bobby Jones/Alister MacKenzie Augusta masterpiece might awaken the echoes again in Superman’s game.

But after nine holes in that final round 38 years ago, Nicklaus was one under for the round and still well behind the leaders – Ballesteros, Kite and Norman, who had begun to separate themselves from the rest.

If Nicklaus had one thing in his favor, it was that he was ahead of the leaders on the golf course. If he could make a move, the others might start coming back to him.

His march actually began on the ninth hole, where Nicklaus holed a 10-footer for birdie. Then he birdied Nos. 10 and 11 and suddenly he was at 5 under for the tournament. But then he bogeyed the par-3 12th, angrily using his oversized putter head (“Hell, my first car wasn’t that big,” Lee Trevino once joked) to pat down the spike mark that directed his par-saving putt offline.

But Nicklaus still had the two par-5 holes – Nos. 13 and 15 – on which he could do some damage if he could play the other holes in par. He birdied the 13th, made par on No. 14 and then played two shots to the pond-guarded 15th green and made the 10-foot eagle putt that suddenly had the place in an uproar.

At the 179-yard 16th hole, Nicklaus chose to play a 5-iron. Over the years, as his eyesight began to fail him at distances, he began to play more by feel. So when he struck the golf ball and reached for his tee, it was left to Jackie to do the cheerleading.

 “Be right!” the son shouted.

“It is,” the father acknowledged.

The resulting roar after the ball spun back toward the hole, just missed going in for an ace and stopping three feet below the cup, confirmed what Nicklaus already knew. He sank that putt and went to the 17th tee. It was there that he heard a different sort of roar – a light cheer followed by a heavy groan – back at 15 and knew something had happened.

It had – Ballesteros had put his approach to the green into the pond.

That left Nicklaus, Norman and Kite to battle it out, and you wondered if the Golden Bear had one more birdie putt in his bag. Two shots later, he did – a 12-foot putt that son Jackie thought broke right. Nicklaus agreed but then pointed out that the ball would straighten out because of the influence of Rae’s Creek in Amen Corner.

“This is for sole possession of the lead,” CBS Sports’ Verne Lundquist reported from the 17th hole tower. His next three words would become possibly the greatest Lundquist has ever intoned.

“Maybe …” Lundquist said as the ball took the path that Nicklaus thought it would.

“Yes, Sir!”

Nicklaus and Son left the 18th green arm in arm after a two-putt par from 40 feet to complete the back-nine 30 for the 65 and 9-under total of 279. And then he waited for Kite and Norman to match or surpass him.

Kite had a 12-foot birdie putt at 18 to tie – and missed. Norman, who had tied Nicklaus with the last of his four straight birdies at the 17th, could have won with a birdie but he spun out of his approach, his ball missing the green to the right and he couldn’t get up and down for the par that would have produced a playoff.

Long ago, Bobby Jones said this about Nicklaus: “He is playing an entirely different game, and one which I’m not even familiar with.”

And no one knows that to this day.

The beer and liquors flowed once again that Sunday night 38 years ago as we toasted what for many of us is still the greatest athletic accomplishment – individual or team, amateur or professional – any of us have ever seen.

The Monday morning after, with no more aspirins in the house to ease my self-inflicted pain and a late-afternoon plane departure, I slept through my rooster.

He could crow three times and there would be no denying by me that the golf world is a better place with Jack William Nicklaus as its greatest player, its greatest sportsman.

Yes, Sir!