Even more so than physical ability, perhaps the attribute that most distinguishes elite athletes from the rest of us is the pathological desire to win at practically any cost. It’s a relentless drive that we as viewers can both admire, and concede shades into madness. Certain athletes—think of Tom Brady’s seven championships, or Bill Russell’s 11—push ahead with insensible, Ahab-like voraciousness even after their career achievements have become an abstracted blur of brilliance. The flip side of this trait is frequently an irreconcilable relationship between winning and losing, which has proved a quality of life issue for a non-trivial number of the best of the best.
It’s been 35 years since the 1986 Masters, when a diminished 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus roared past a leaderboard full of marquee names to win his 18th and final major championship. This late-career masterpiece—which concluded with a credulity-straining back-nine 30—cemented Nicklaus’s status as the then-finest player of all time. It also humanized him.
In his early days on Tour, Nicklaus was a dominant but remote figure, best known for beating the more outwardly accessible Arnold Palmer. In the 1970s, a blond mop and endless succession of thrilling victories endeared “the Golden Bear” to the public, but to see him in 1986 was something different. Back ailments had severely limited his schedule to the point that he was barely still a touring pro. He was a slower and heavier version of his previous self, and his grown son, Jackie Jr., was on his bag. He was old. A peculiar custom of the Masters is that any living previous winner may enter the field at any age, should they choose to do so. And at 46, Nicklaus seemed mostly like a nostalgic attraction—a way to bring eyeballs to the sport’s budding stars. Except he didn’t see it that way.
To commemorate the occasion of what is perhaps golf’s most fabled tournament of the pre-Tiger era, I spoke to Nick Price, Sandy Lyle, Tom Watson, and Greg Norman—all of whom are multiple major champions and were near Nicklaus on the leaderboard that weekend—about that particular Masters. Jack’s unlikely Sunday blitzkrieg was a thrill to fans, but how did it feel to the men competing on the course alongside him that day?
Nick Price was 29 in 1986, and going into the Masters, he didn’t feel like Nicklaus had a shot at winning.
“Oh, no, no, no. Not at all. I don’t think anyone did,” Price says. “He just came out of almost-retirement, really, or semi-retirement.”
All this time later, though, Price does recall an omen—one that should have tipped him off to what was coming. “I remember hearing that someone had written, I think it was in one of the Georgia papers, a sports column on the Monday or the Tuesday of that week that said something like, ‘Washed Up at 46, Jack Has No Chance of Winning the Masters.’ And so, either one of his family [members] or one of his buddies cut it out of the paper and stuck it to the refrigerator door that week. Every time Jack went to go to the refrigerator, he saw this. If anything would motivate him, that would.”
Even with Nicklaus just four shots off the lead going into Sunday, he would have to leapfrog a murderers’ row of established and emerging greats to remain in contention. Price, who at 5-under was tied for second with three others going into the final round, thought he was going to win. But if he didn’t, he was convinced that Greg Norman, alone in the lead at 6-under, would be the champion.
“Norman was playing great golf,” Price says. “He played consistently the whole week. And on the back nine on Sunday, he went on a tear. He played about as well as I’ve seen on the closing six holes of a major…