Master of the Masters
On Saturday and Sunday the gusts at Augusta National relented and the flags hardly fluttered. The young lions with the young nerves had their opportunities before them. Greg Norman pulled as badly at the tenth hole as he pushed at the 18th. Severiano Ballesteros, having made two eagles the last day, ingloriously dumped the ball into the pond at the 15th. Tom Kite couldn’t sink the putts his play had made so makeable at the 14th and 18th holes.
That wasn’t the half of it. The density and depth of competition at the fiftieth Masters Tournament flustered CBS Sports. Its telecast was rendered chaotic by blitzes of action and reaction too complicated to be coherently rendered. Above all, the commentator sputtered–no wonder–as the true narrative line unfolded. Almost unbelievably, over the last ten holes, Jack Nicklaus made nearly everything he looked at except a bitchy little putt at the dreaded 12th hole.
It’s just as well he missed it, or the day might have been completely incredible. The old story is new because somehow Jack Nicklaus is. The Golden Bear aroused the galleries to passion with mighty drives and accurate irons and putts that had eyes. So what else is new? What’s new is that this is 1986. It’s not 1959, when Nicklaus won his first major tournament, the U.S. Amateur, years before his caddy at Augusta, his son Jack Jr., was born. nor is it 1962, when he won his third major tournament, the U.S. Open, his first as a professional; when some in the crowd at Oakmont yelled at him, “Miss it, Jack!” Back when he was the beefy kid who went around embarrassing Arnold Palmer.
After his historic major victories at St. Andrews (twice) and Muirfield in the British Open, his five wins in the PGA, his four U.S. Opens and two Amateurs and five previous Masters wins are all totted up, the number comes to a nice even twenty–not counting some 69 other victories here and abroad. It’s a record as unlikely to be broken as any other in sports.
Except one: the Grand Slam pulled off by Robert Tyre Jones Jr. in 1930. Master of all he surveyed, Jones retired as an amateur with 13 major victories at the age of 28, and then established the Masters as a celebration of golf, professional and amateur alike. Years later, the young Jack Nicklaus, intensely aware of Jones the man and the sportsman, made the decision to turn pro in a different environment. Nicklaus accepted the mantle of commercial celebrity, the call of big bucks, the mobility of the jet age, the power of the media, the dynamic opportunities of advanced technology and capitalism. He is an executive intelligence and a millionaire many times over who regularly hawks cordless phones and credit cards and building materials on the tube.
Yet as a gentleman, a sportsman, and even as an amateur–in the best sense of those words–Nicklaus requires comparison with Bobby Jones. In conscious emulation of Jones, Nicklaus personally laid out a great course and founded a tournament to be played on it–the Memorial. Also like Jones–and like Hogan–Nicklaus radiates mental force. His awesome powers of concentration were all on display at Augusta on Sunday. His analytical glare is like the abstracted stare of a thoughtful diamond-cutter who ponders a particularly delicate challenge. Nicklaus, famed for brawn, demonstrated on the back nine the triumph of mind over matter–a conquest of will, a festival of spirit and brain. All about him, the nerves of much younger contestants jangled and twitched.
At the age of 46, Jack Nicklaus brought tears to the eyes of thousands–including himself–who know that the severest competitions, the keenest ordeals, are undertaken finally not for material reward but for that immortal renown we call glory.
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