Nicklaus’s run in 1986 was special, but Tiger’s triumph Sunday was so much more

Tiger Woods reacts on the 18th green after winning the Masters on Sunday at Augusta National Golf Course in August, Ga. It was Woods’ 15th major tournament championship, but his first in 11 years and his first victory at the Masters in 14 years. He finished at 13-under par for a one shot win. AP photo/David J. Phillip

I was nine years old, just 10 days shy of my 10th birthday, when I watched the greatest sporting event of my life.

Sunday, April 13, 1986. I was stationed just feet away from our 25-inch console color television. Yes, kids, a 25-inch TV. Back then, that was big-time.

By my side was a bag of Starburst and the shredded wrappers — rightfully so, strawberry was always first — piled up as the afternoon progressed. I’m not sure why they are so vivid in my memory, but there you go.

That was the day Jack Nicklaus turned me into a golf fanatic for life. At the age of 46 and well past his prime, the greatest player to ever live turned back time for a few hours and captivated a nation.

A back-nine 30. A final-round 65. A record sixth Masters title and green jacket.

Just thinking about it … chills.

The eagle putt on 15. The tee shot at 16 where his oldest son and caddie Jackie could be heard saying “be right,” to which the Golden Bear responded “it is,” as the dimpled ball sailed towards its landing spot just four feet from the cup. And that birdie putt at 17, Nicklaus with his arm and putters raised towards the heavens as it trickled home.

For 33 years, nothing topped it. Thousands of sporting events came and went, many of them great and a handful of them legendary. Still, nothing rivaled Nicklaus’s charge at Augusta, not for me anyway.

Until yesterday.

Father Time stands still for no man, not even great athletes. Maybe that’s why, for the first time in my life, I found myself openly rooting for Tiger Woods as he attempted to win his first major in 11 years and his first Masters in 14 years, on the most hallowed of golf’s stages.

One upon a time, Woods was a superhero. Just a stare was enough to turn his opponents’ knees to jelly, the result being one of the most dominant figures in the history of sports.

But four knee surgeries and four back surgeries later, Woods was less superhero, more shattered ego. It was just two years ago that he said he didn’t think he’d ever play competitive golf again, and the odds of him winning another major were laughable to some and improbable to most.

I flip-flopped like a politician running from one rally to the next. Woods would have a decent round and I’d think, yeah, he could win again. A month later he’d throw up an 82, withdraw from a tournament because of yet another injury, and I’d join the group that said it’s over.

Somewhere along the way, Tiger turned from a villain to someone that I couldn’t help but root for. Yes, the off-the-course scandals that rocked the sport a decade ago are more than enough for many golf fans to turn their backs on him forever. I understand that. But as I watched Tiger tour Augusta over the weekend, I was able to separate the man from the golfer and simply appreciate the spectacle.

For the first time in his professional life, Tiger became an underdog, something we all (or most) love to root for. The younger generation of players picked up the game because of him and now all they want to do is go head-to-head and beat him.

For whatever reason, they all blinked on Sunday. Tiger’s course knowledge surely had a little to do with his calm demeanor and steady play down the stretch, but the roars that echoed through the trees had to have been unnerving for the other players.

And as the tournament reached its conclusion, with Tiger screaming in celebration and embracing his children just off the 18th green, I couldn’t help but think one thing: It was all genuine.

Sunday was special, there’s simply no denying it. My 12-year-old daughter Taylor wouldn’t know a birdie from a Rubik’s Cube, but there she sat by my side for more than three hours watching the scene at the Masters unfold.

I never thought anything would top Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters, and then along came Tiger 2.0. My soon-to-be 43-year-old self was just as excited as my former nine-year-old self.

All that was missing was another bag of Starburst.

COMMENTS