The Unforgettable '86 Masters: Jack Nicklaus' Victory Lap

Icons | September 30, 2021

One of the most iconic finishes in sports. (golfdigest)

The Masters Tournament held in Augusta, Georgia owns some of the most memorable moments in the history of golf. Of course, probably the most indelible of all of those classic memories came during the 1986 Masters. That year, Jack “Golden Bear” Nicklaus took the victory at an incredible age of 46 years. It marked his 18th and final major, cementing him as one of, if not, the greatest golfer in the sport’s illustrious history.

His momentous victory came despite incredibly low expectations for the Hall of Famer. In ‘86 Nicklaus had missed three cuts or withdrew in four of the seven events he entered. He earned his best finish of 39th in Hawaii. In his own words, “Going into the tournament I had no expectations about winning, at all. I love playing golf. I wanted to stay part of the Tour. I really loved playing golf.”

Few career cappers can match Nicklaus' '86 Masters. (vancouversun)

Prepping For Augusta

At that point in his career, Nicklaus wasn’t all-in on golf. As he said, “I was between things in my life. My business was fine but it didn’t take up all my time. I’d play some golf, 12 to 14 tournaments a year, not enough to keep me sharp, but enough to be somewhat competitive. I was neither fish nor fowl. I wasn’t really a golfer.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard and the wiley vet began preparing for the Masters as he always did. “When January rolled around I started thinking about the Masters, I started practicing for the Masters and getting ready for it and picked my tournaments and everything else based on getting to Augusta.

To make the moment extra special, one of Nicklaus' sons served as his caddie. (pgatour)


Unlike other years, Jack found some motivation in the presence of his mother. “Several things about that Masters were unique. My mother had not been to the Masters since my first one in 1959, and she’d said, ‘I want to go to the Masters one more time.’ So she was there, and so was my sister, Marilyn, who had never been to the Masters.”

He also noticed that the Atlanta paper all but counted him out. There were even whispers that he was the Olden Bear. “I read in the Atlanta paper that 46-year-olds don’t win Masters. I kind of agreed. I got to thinking. Hmmm. Done, through, washed up. And I sizzled for a while. But I said to myself, I’m not going to quit now, playing the way I’m playing. I’ve played too well, too long to let a shorter period of bad golf be my last.”

Seemingly, the entire country was rooting for Jack. (golf)

Slow Start

Through the first two rounds, nothing in his performance hinted that he would contend. He looked every bit the old, creaky 46 year old ‘over the hill’ golfer that the pundits predicted. However, a spirited 69 on Saturday put him just four shots back of Greg Norman, tied for 9th. That Sunday morning he got a call from his son. Steve Nick­laus asked, “What do you think, Pops?” The Golden Bear responded, “I think 66 will tie and 65 will win. He said that’s the exact number he had in mind. Go shoot it.”

A storied finish for one of golf's most celebrated players. (golf)

A Back Nine For The Ages

Even through the front nine, Nicklaus struggled to get it going. Then all of a sudden on number nine, the magic began to happen. “I didn’t feel like I could get anything going until the 9th hole. And then we had that rigmarole with Seve Ballesteros and Tom Kite making eagles at 8. And I turn to the crowd. I’ve backed off the ball twice because of the shots, so I ask the gallery, ‘OK, you’ve heard all of that noise, let’s see if we can make some noise here ourselves.’ And I knocked it in, and I was off.”

On the back, Nicklaus looked especially golden, shooting an absurd 30. “All of a sudden I started making birdies and all of a sudden I remembered how to play. I remembered the feeling of being in contention. I wasn’t doing a whole lot of math about that time. I was too busy making birdies.” In a truly unbelievable career, the ‘86 Masters capped a story book ending.

For a famously humble man, even Jack couldn’t downplay the accomplishment. “This was maybe as fine a round of golf as I’ve ever played. I didn’t expect to win, the press didn’t expect me to win, the players didn’t expect me to win. Obviously, all my 18 majors are very special. It is difficult to rank them but I think it is obvious that the ’86 win stands out simply because most of the others I expected to win.”

Tags: Jack Nicklaus | professional golf

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Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!