Nicklaus' '86 charge unmatched

Friday, April 01, 2011
By John Boyette
Sports Editor

With Amen Corner, the allure of possible eagles on the two par-5s, stern finishing holes and limited television coverage, Masters Tournament fans have been conditioned to believe that the tournament, and the excitement, doesn't truly start until the final groups reach the 10th tee Sunday afternoon.

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Jack Nicklaus celebrates as he watches his putt drop for a birdie on the 17th hole at the Augusta National on April 13, 1986. The shot gave him the lead and ultimately his 6th Masters title.

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It's not true.

Since Jack Nicklaus roared from behind to win the 1986 Masters with a closing 30 on Augusta National Golf Club's final nine, no one has matched the Golden Bear's exceptional charge, which featured an eagle and five birdies. Nicklaus' charge set the standard, and expectations, for the Sunday finish.

The closest has been Phil Mickelson, who made five birdies en route to 31 in his first Masters victory in 2004. In his third Masters win, in 2010, Mickelson made four birdies to shoot 32 on the inward nine.

Most golfers who are in or near the lead tend to play the first nine with a bit more caution, Mickelson said.

"There's a lot more birdie holes on the back nine than there are the front," Mickelson said after his 2010 win. "The front, they are a lot tougher pin positions and more severe greens, and you have to be careful.

"If I can make the turn at under par, I feel like there's a 3- or 4-under-par round on the back."

Sandy Lyle overcame a double bogey on No. 12 to win in 1988. He is one of only four champions to make bogey or worse on the hole since 1986.

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But a burst of birdies isn't really needed to win the Masters.

Playing the final nine in 1-under or 2-under is normally enough. Almost half of the winners since 1986 have posted scores of 34 or 35, well above what Nicklaus accomplished.

A player can shoot par or worse and still win, too. Six champions have posted scores of 36 or higher in the past 25 years. Tiger Woods shot 37 on the final nine in two of his wins (2002 and 2005). Trevor Immelman closed with 38 on a windy day in 2008 but still won by three.

Twelve years after his last Masters win, a 58-year-old Nicklaus had the gallery at Augusta National buzzing as he vaulted into contention with 3-under 33 on the first nine.

"I got to the exact same position on the golf course, had my son Steve caddying, and I'm walking down the 15th fairway," Nicklaus said about 1998. "I said, 'Steve, we're sitting exactly the same place I was in '86.' If I can make the same finish (eagle and two birdies) -- of course I didn't -- but if I had finished the same way, I would have forced (Mark) O'Meara to make that 20-foot putt on the last hole to beat me."

O'Meara did make that putt to win, and he, Mickelson and Sandy Lyle are the only golfers in the past 25 years who made birdie on the final hole when they needed one for the victory.

Jose Maria Olazabal made eagle on No. 15 en route to his first green jacket in 1994. In 1993, Bernhard Langer made eagle on No. 13. They are the only two winners to do so on Augusta National's final nine since Nicklaus in 1986.

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Nicklaus said he believes someone will make a charge like he did to win in 1986.

"It'll happen. Those situations, those circumstances, they happen every once in a while," he said. "It just happened to happen to me then."

Reach John Boyette at (706) 823-3337 or john.boyette@augustachronicle.com.