When Jack Nicklaus won the 1986 Masters at age 46, it proved to be the capstone to one of the most legendary careers in sports history. It was Nicklaus' 18th and final major championship and his sixth green jacket. Meanwhile, the man who wrote Sports Illustrated's account of that historic tournament, Rick Reilly, was just beginning his climb as one of the best and most well-known sportswriters of his era. At 28, Reilly was not just writing the cover story about the Masters but also attending the event for the first time. He had been at SI for less than a year, yet he found himself tasked with writing a story so big that it caused others around him in the Augusta National pressroom to wilt under the pressure of matching the moment.
Reilly's piece, however, soared, and so too did his career. In the clearest sign to date of his prodigious talent, Reilly's story on Nicklaus might not have even been his best story in that issue. He also wrote a bonus piece on his former sportswriting colleague at the Los Angeles Times, longtime columnist Jim Murray, that is a classic in its own right. I spoke to Reilly about how he got to SI, how he wrote one of the best deadline stories the magazine ever ran and how he changed the Masters forever.
SI: You were only 28 when you wrote this story and hadn't been at Sports Illustrated very long. How did you get hired at SI?
REILLY: I never asked them exactly what did it, but I think it was my coverage of the 1984 Summer Olympics for the Los Angeles Times. I remember doing this story on gymnast Mary Lou Retton when she was about to compete in the finals of the all-around. I flipped my credential around and snuck down to the floor. I knew that Bela Karolyi was not commissioned to be the main coach of the U.S. team but that he was Mary Lou Retton’s coach, so I spent the whole night next to Bela. Every time she came over he’d say, “You can do it little buddy!” I was inside all the things they were saying to each other. You know those Olympic films by Bud Greenspan? I’m in that because he’s hugging me, like throwing me around, when she flips the two 10s. So I wrote this really fun piece about Bela and Mary Lou Retton.
The next spring I got a call from Jill Lieber, who was an SI writer, and she said, “You gotta call [SI assistant managing editor] Larry Keith.” I said, “Who’s he?” She said, “He’s from SI, I think you could be hired there.”
So Larry and I talked. I was at spring training with the Dodgers at the time. I was doing an interview with Vin Scully when the magazine called and said, “Can you come up to New York?” I said, “Yeah, but I have nothing but shorts and one pair of pants.” They said, “Come up and bring the pants.” I went to the Time & Life Building to meet Larry and Mark Mulvoy, the managing editor, and Mark said, “You need a jacket.” So he just stops this guy in the hallway and says, “Give me your jacket.” We go eat at the top of the Time & Life Building. I’d never been in a place like that in my life. Right away I knock a glass of water into Mulvoy’s lap. I thought, You idiot, you blew it. Then I had to bring the guy his jacket back, which was way too big by the way, and soaked.
Larry hired me anyway. He was this gentle spring breeze and Mulvoy was a hurricane. But Mulvoy totally made my career. People would say, “How can you give him this assignment, he’s only 27?” He’d say, “I don’t care, he’s a good writer, give it to him.”
SI: Is that how you got to cover the Masters the next year?
REILLY: Yeah, they kind of gave it to me. I’d only been there a year and the great Dan Jenkins had quit the magazine in ‘84. I got assigned college football and I said, “I really love golf, I know golf.” So they gave me that too.
Nineteen-eighty-six was my first Masters and I was blown away because my dad and I used to watch it together. The thing I remember the most is that we got this tip that Jack Nicklaus was broke. I think maybe Mulvoy had heard it. So now I’ve got to talk to Jack Nicklaus for the first time in my life, I’m 28 years old and my knees are knocking. I go up to him and I say, “Jack, I’m Rick Reilly from Sports Illustrated. We hear you’re broke.”
He looked at me and he could kind of tell that I’m just so green. He goes, “Come with me, son,” and he takes me into the champions locker room. No reporters had ever been in the champions locker room. And there’s Arnold Palmer sitting there taking off his socks -- it’s amazing who’s in there. He’s like, “Let me tell you what happened.” He says he’s not broke, but he did have a deal that went upside down, and so on. The whole time my hands are shaking.
SI: You must have figured that would be the extent of the Nicklaus angle to that story.
REILLY: Right, he was 46 years old and you’d never dream he’d be a part of it. With nine holes to pay he’s five shots down and then suddenly all heaven started breaking loose. God that was so exciting.
SI: It still holds up as one of the best deadline pieces in SI history. How did you do it?
REILLY: When he won it went from the usual four pages to whatever it wound up being. Jack Nicklaus, who hasn’t won a major in six years, comes from five behind at 46 years old to win his sixth green jacket, his son is on the bag, he’s got tears in his eyes when he’s putting on 16 with a giant Hoover attachment, he’s making everything he looks at and it’s the story of all-time in golf. They go, “Write as much as you can think of. Just write.”
Nicklaus did his one hour interview after the round, and guys got to their computers and were just gagging. I remember a guy just holding his head and saying, “It’s too big, I can’t write it.”
I had all these notes and transcripts and Buddy Martin, my old boss from the Denver Post, said, “Put it all to the side and write what you feel and then get back to the papers.” So I did. I probably wrote for four straight hours before I went to the papers. Women in dresses trying to climb trees. People running. All the rules, all the decorum, all the politeness, just went out the window and people just behaved like Alabama football fans. You saw that guy who put the numbers on the scoreboard pumping his first and the crowd going crazy at 18 and Nicklaus had birdied 17 with that crazy long putt. He puts up that red eight and this guy starts pumping his arm.
I met that guy years later, by the way. He said, “You made me famous. Well, my arm at least.”
Anyway, then I went back to the house SI rented in Augusta and I wrote my ass off. Usually you pace around, you get a cup of coffee and you want to kill yourself. That story just flowed the whole night. I remember finishing and sending it in and it was 6:53 a.m. They used to let the first 20 media members who got to the course by 7 a.m. play the course the day after the tournament ended. I remember thinking, “I’m done, I’ve got my clubs and I’m going to go play Augusta National the day after Jack Nicklaus won!” I grabbed my clubs and drove over there and there were 100 photographers ahead of me on line, so I didn’t get to play.
I told that story one day on a radio station or something and it got back to Augusta. They changed the policy right then and there. Made it into a lottery.
SI: How does that story rank for you?
REILLY: I think that’s the best I ever did on a news story just because it was so delicious. It just seemed like it was set up for me. Jack Nicklaus, my favorite player and having watched him with my dad, and his son on the bag and the putt by Tom Kite that went in the center of the hole and somehow didn’t go in and Nicklaus winning and coming out of that cabin….Then they just gave me all the space I needed.
SI: Did you follow Nicklaus around the course on Sunday and hear and sense all these things that were happening?
REILLY: At the Masters you can only walk the front nine on Sunday. But after that the buzz at that old Quonset hut was unbelievable. Dan Jenkins used to have this great line about Jack Nicklaus, which was that when you heard that it meant Nicklaus was about to do something so you better change your lead.
SI: So how much did you have to change?
REILLY: I always wrote what we call middle. I had the middle, but then I had to change that too. There was a little guy we all liked from Atlanta named Tommy McMillen or something. No, McAllister! He had written before the tournament that Jack was done. Jack cut it out and put it on his refrigerator and it really made him mad. People forget he bogied 12, and he said that just really made him mad too. Whatever you want to say about Jack Nicklaus, he’s such a nice guy and he always gives you such a nice answer but he’s so competitive. He was mad. So he won it.
SI: How well do you know Nicklaus now? Do you ever discuss that story with him?
REILLY: I know him well but he never mentions that story. He’d be happy to talk about himself if you ask, but mostly he likes to talk about tennis, fishing and his grandkids. He never reminds me that I asked if he was broke. A few of us have a tradition at the Masters where we have lunch Sunday in the clubhouse and he usually stops by our table. Years later, I spent some time caddying for him while working on my book, Who’s Your Caddy. I play the piano, rather badly, but just standards, Sinatra, that kind of thing, and he came in and sang while I played. And he had a nice voice.
SI: One thing we haven’t mentioned yet: That same issue also had your bonus story on legendary L.A. Times sportswriter Jim Murray. Not a bad week.
REILLY: You’re 28 and you’re like, I can probably do better than that. I should have quit right then and become a monk somewhere in Tibet. That was such a great…it takes years of doing this to go, Wow, how did that happen in the same week?
SI: Did you know that they would run at the same time?
REILLY: I didn’t know. They plan those things out months ahead, but who knew Jack Nicklaus was going to win the freaking Masters the same week! Frank Deford had a great story on Larry Bird the same week Gary Smith had his incredible Mike Tyson bonus. I do remember getting a few calls, though, like, “Hell of a week.”
It was such a golden age to be a sportswriter because you were so easy to find. There weren’t 90 million blogs and websites and links. There must be 100 times the number of pieces written in sports per day than there were when I was at SI, so you were kind of the only game in town. So it just appeared in front of people. Now I feel bad for people who write wonderful stuff but it’s so hard to find. With me and my guys from those years it was on your dentists’ coffee table, it was in your mailbox, it was at your dad’s house. You knew exactly where you could find the bonus, exactly where you could find the back page column. Now it’s much harder to find a piece that everybody sees.