Jack Nicklaus's greatest Masters

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In the Spring of 1965, Jack Nicklaus was a troubled man. Despite having already won three majors (and finished runner-up in three of 1964’s majors) the beefy 25-year old had not won one for over a year. He’d also recently discovered that his right hip was half-an-inch lower than his left, and was giving him back pains. Worst of all, perhaps, for the first time in his career he had developed a rather nasty hook.

Normally, when things went wrong with his swing, Nicklaus would jet down to Miami Beach and visit Jack Grout. Grout had been his teacher since he was 10. He knew everything about the young man’s swing. They would invariably review the fundamentals; and within a couple of hours, Grout would have come up with a happy solution.

But this time, things were different. Nicklaus had already made his pre-season visit to Grout; and then gone to Augusta, a week before the Masters, to practise. Playing with one of his Tour friends, Deane Beman, Nicklaus was still hitting everything left into the trees. Beman reckoned Nicklaus was closing his shoulders and hips as he started his backswing. This meant he was unable to release the club properly. Nicklaus started to take the club straight back; and the impromptu lesson worked like magic.

In his final practice round, on the following Tuesday, Nicklaus was back to his brilliant best, shooting 67 with ease, playing alongside Ben Hogan. He even took money off Hogan, which in those days was akin to shooting 59. The crisis had passed. Nicklaus was back. He’d even purchased a Dr Scholl’s foot pad, which seemed to have corrected the discrepancy in height of his hips.

Golfers are superstitious though and, on the eve of the first round, Nicklaus told his caddie he was to wear the same number 90 on his white overalls that he had done when the Golden Bear had won his first Green Jacket in 1963. “I had seldom felt more calm and relaxed going into a major,” Nicklaus says now. “The first day, the course was in as good condition as I’d ever seen it; and the weather was beautiful, sunny and no wind. My first tee shot went left into the trees. Luckily, I had a clear line to the flag, and with an 8-iron I put it to eight feet. For some reason, over that birdie putt, I was hit by a wave of nerves. I just didn’t want to hit it. So, I backed off. Gathered myself. And forced myself into a positive mind-set. The moment my ball found the middle of the cup for a birdie, all my nerves seemed to evaporate.”

On a day of low scoring (local newspaper the Atlanta Constitution described it as a day when “the scoreboard dripped blood”) Nicklaus’ five-under 67 was two shots behind the leader, Gary Player. The South African was in his usual reticent mind-set. “I am playing so well I can’t believe it. I recently bought a putter in Japan for $50 and I’m holing absolutely everything! I’m also reading this book called ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ by Norman Vincent Peale, and it seems to really be working!”

He chatted into the night with the press, not least about his fitness regime. “It’s amazing what you can do with your body. Within five years, most players will be doing some sort of exercise along these lines. Jack and Arnie kid me a lot about my muscle building, but let me tell you, they wouldn’t if they shrunk to five feet seven and had to stand on a tee with me. Then we’d see who’d out-hit who.”

Jack's Greatest Masters

If Thursday was benign, Friday was anything but. There was a stiff breeze and the pins were in wicked places. Augusta Chairman Clifford Roberts vehemently denied it was a reaction to Thursday’s scoring, claiming his club would never stoop so low.

Whatever, only three players broke par on Friday (compared with 31 on Thursday) and Arnold Daniel Palmer with a 68 and Jack William Nicklaus, with a 71, were two of them. At halfway, the Big Three of Palmer, Player and Nicklaus were all joint leaders. While Palmer (35) and Player (29) slept well, Nicklaus (25) was restless on Friday night. He was still thinking about his round, seething that three consecutive bogeys around Amen Corner had cost him a chance of the outright lead. At the 11th and 12th, he’d carelessly allowed himself to look up on chip shots; and at the 13th, he’d made a bad decision after his drive leaked right into the trees. Faced with a 230-yard second shot, off pine needles, with an acute sidehill lie, he still went for the green... and found the creek. At the back of his mind, he knew the huge crowds would be willing Arnie to victory, not him.

On Saturday, paired with Dan Sikes Jnr, Nicklaus’ first shot set the tone. It was a blistering drive of 300 yards that split the fairway. His only bad shot of the day was his drive at the 2nd, which he pushed into the trees, but from there he found a lie and an angle in, and made a birdie. Nicklaus had eight birdies and 10 pars in his 64, which tied Lloyd Mangrum’s course record from 1940. It was an extraordinary round and saw Nicklaus (-14) lead Player (-9) by five and Palmer (-6) by eight. With a round to play, everyone except Nicklaus behaved as if the Green Jacket had already been won. The only debate was whether he could shoot under par the next day; and by doing so break Hogan’s scoring record set in 1953 of 274 (-14).

But, for Nicklaus, what was happening outside the ropes was almost as important as what was going on inside. Ever since turning pro, he had been viewed as the brash young challenger to crowd darling, Arnold Palmer. ‘Arnie’s Army’ had often reacted harshly to his confidence, but now, for the first time in his career, there seemed to be real warmth to him. During his 64, he noticed how more and more people were really cheering for him. “Go get ’em Jack!” greeted him on every tee. “’Attaboy, big fella!” came the shouts. “It was a most moving experience,” says Nicklaus now, “and one of the great turning points in my career. And it made me play a whole lot better. Before that moment, I hadn’t really understood how Arnie could move up a gear in a tournament, when the crowds started to get behind him. Now, I understood.”

On Saturday night, Nicklaus thought he might have to shoot better than 70. After all, if he could shoot a 64, then so could Gary or Arnie. Playing with Mason Rudolph, he was out in one under and as he walked to the 10th tee, looked at the leaderboard and was relieved no-one was making a run. At the 12th (where he had nearly lost the ’63 Masters, and had shanked a ball in front of Bob Jones in ’64) he played very safely, to 25 feet, and then sank the birdie putt.

“At that moment,” says Nicklaus, “I realised I had birdied seven of the 15 par 3s I had played. ‘Nicklaus,’ I said to myself. ‘This is blasphemous. People are simply not supposed to do things like this at Augusta National. I now led by eight. When I walked off the 13th green, for the first time I felt 100 per cent confident that I would win; and for the first time allowed myself to think about the 72-hole record.”

At the 15th, Nicklaus had his only three-putt of the week (“I was probably too excited about the record”). On 17, his caddie Willie advised a wedge for his approach. Nicklaus hit a 9-iron and almost holed it. He tapped in the birdie before reaching out to Willie, and pulling the peak of his cap over his eyes. His 69 gave him a 271 aggregate to beat the record by three.

As he waited to receive his Green Jacket, he watched on a TV his approach to 18. It was clear how nervous he had been, as he waggled and shuffled for what seemed ages. “Holy Cow!” he said, in front of a few members. “I wish I’d just go ahead and hit the ball!”

“That victory was very special,” says Nicklaus, “not least because I beat Gary and Arnold by nine shots. Their 280s would have won the Masters most years. In ’63 I had sort of backed into a Green Jacket. This time I definitely hadn’t. I hit the shots that week. But the thousands of people who watched them were more responsible for those shots than they will ever know. I genuinely felt I’d arrived. And I still get a lump in my throat when I think about it.”

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