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Jack Nicklaus and his 60-year love affair with The Masters: How The Bear plotted a course to greatness

© Augusta National/Getty ImagesJack Nicklaus playing as an amateur during the 1959 Masters Tournament
Jack Nicklaus playing as an amateur during the 1959 Masters Tournament

This year marks the 60th anniversary since a precocious teenager called Jack Nicklaus first walked through the doors of Augusta National.

That appearance as a 19-year-old amateur back in 1959 was the start of a love affair between him and The Masters that endures to this very day.

The teenager from Ohio didn’t make the cut on his debut but it was not long before he was ready to dominate the event.

By 1963 the darling of the crowds and the sport’s biggest star, Arnold Palmer, had won The Masters three times. Suddenly Nicklaus was ready to take the crown away from him.

Already the US Open Champion, Nicklaus enjoyed a golden spell in which he won the tournament three times in four years and was runner-up on the other occasion.

Augusta in early April suited Jack down to the ground. He could prepare through the early months of the year to make sure his game peaked when he arrived in Georgia.

That success carried on right throughout the 1970s. Two more Green Jackets were collected in 1972 and 1975 when he held off Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf in an exciting finale. His worst finish in that period was eighth.

No one in golf can win every week but Nicklaus was probably as close as possible to doing that. He targeted the Majors and his planning usually paid off.

As others felt the weight of history in golf’s four biggest events, the man nicknamed “The Bear” accumulated Major after Major.

But by the time he arrived at Augusta in 1986, most people in golf thought that Nicklaus’s best days were behind him.

He had not won a Major for six years and his last win around the famous course had been 11 years previously.

By now Nicklaus was starting to focus on designing golf courses and building up his Golden Bear golfing brand for when his own career would finish. He was in a relaxed mood about his own game and as such he had son Jackie, the oldest of his six children, acting as his caddie for the week.

After unspectacular rounds on the first two days of 74 and 71, Nicklaus started to move up the leaderboard with a 69 on the Saturday. That left him in a tie for ninth, four shots off the lead.

But looking at the names that were above him, no one really thought of Jack as a contender to claim the Green Jacket the following day.

Greg Norman was leading and sooner or later the Australian was going to claim that elusive first Major. One shot behind was German Bernhard Langer, the defending champion and the first world number one, according to the newly-created world rankings.

Langer was joined by Seve Ballesteros, the charismatic Spaniard who had already won twice around Augusta and was in his pomp, while the home charge was led by Nicklaus’s old rival, Tom Watson, as he sat two behind Norman but two clear of Nicklaus.

What followed on the Sunday has gone down in Masters folklore and, certainly in America, it is the most famous day in a tournament known for dramatic finishes.

As Nicklaus played his first eight holes in even par, there was little sign of what was to come. But the fuse was lit when he birdied 9, 10 and 11.

Even a bogey at the short par-three 12th was not enough to derail his momentum. At the famous par-fives on the back nine, he birdied the 13th and eagled the 15th and suddenly the roars around the tree-lined fairways were getting louder.

A glorious tee shot at the 16th set up a simple birdie and he was within one of the lead, held at that stage by Ballesteros. Incredibly, the Spaniard succumbed to the pressure as he dumped a shot into the water at the 15th and his challenge faded.

When Nicklaus holed his birdie putt at the 17th, the 46-year-old had surged ahead. Wearing his yellow T-shirt, the sight of him walking after the ball with his putter in the air is an indelible image, as American commentator Verne Lundqvist screams “Yes, sir!” as it drops into the hole.

As he two-putted the last for a par, Nicklaus signed for a final round of 65 and a scintillating back nine of just 30 shots.

However, Norman had staged his own revival in the last few holes and he stood on the 18th fairway tied for the lead.

If he could birdie the final hole, he would be Masters champion. Instead he put his shot into the crowd and could not scramble a par to force a play-off.

Against all the odds, Nicklaus had done it. He had won the Masters for the sixth and final time to cap his career at 18 Major wins.

But it’s his triumph in 1986 that is always remembered. Rather than do it as the favourite, like in his previous 17 successes, Nicklaus had been the underdog and how everyone loved it.

That figure of 18 is now set in stone in golfing circles. It is known by any keen player or fan. And it is a mark that Tiger Woods has been chasing for more than 20 years. When he reached 14 back in 2008, it seemed to be only a matter of time before he would overtake Jack. Yet injuries and off-course problems set him back and Tiger is still stuck on that same mark 11 years later.

Jack carried on playing at The Masters until he was 65 and he even had a very creditable sixth-place finish at the age of 58, but he was not finished with the event.

Since 2010 he has been an honorary starter of the tournament, hitting the first tee-shot on the Thursday morning to begin the four days of action, while he is also a regular in the par-three event on the Wednesday, where the patrons continue to cheer him on.

And Augusta keeps on giving back to him. Only last year in the par-three, Jack had his 15-year-old grandson, Gary Jr, as his caddie and, as is tradition, let Gary play the final shot.

The ball disappeared for a hole in one, and yet another moment of magic at Augusta for someone called Nicklaus.

The Masters and Jack Nicklaus, Jack Nicklaus and the Masters. They really have gone hand in hand for the last 60 years.