There is no reason to think that 26-year-old Jack Nicklaus won't win every Masters championship from now until the year 2000, but it is unlikely that he will ever have more trouble earning the tournament's hallowed green coat than he did this week at Augusta National Golf Club.
After days of lurching in and out of the course's piney woods, being confounded by the invisible breaks in the grain of its greens and bewildered by its strong and shifting winds, Nicklaus triumphed in one of the most unusual Masters ever played. He did it by making up a three-stroke deficit in the last five holes of play to tie Tommy Jacobs and Gay Brewer at 288 on Sunday. Then he took Monday's playoff and the $20,000 purse with a two-under-par 70, beating Jacobs by two strokes and Brewer by eight with a display of the overpowering golf for which he is famous.
This will be known as the hold-my-green-coat Masters in which nearly every big name in golf had ample opportunity to win in the regulation four days, but declined the honor. The biggest decliner of all was Nicklaus. On Sunday night when he tapped in a two-inch putt on 18 to get into the playoff he puffed up his cheeks and let go a great whoosh of relief. "I've blown this tournament three times," he said, and he had. "I play one good hole and then a bad one. I hit one good drive and then a terrible one. I've hit into a ton of sand. I've hit fewer fairways than in a U.S. Open [ Augusta's fairways are a mile wide, but Nicklaus needed two miles]. My putting just can't be believed. I don't know how I'm still in the tournament. But I don't intend to blow it again." With that he went home, ate three steaks and got set to feast on Brewer and Jacobs in the playoff.
Brewer, too, had spurned his chances. A journeyman pro on the tour for 10 years, he was one of those perpetual also-playeds until recently, when he became a habitual winner. All he had to do to win this Masters was par the 18th on Sunday, but he missed a seven-footer to make the playoff possible. Jacobs, meanwhile, held his position by taking some chances and hitting fine recovery shots after bouncing drives off trees. "I told my caddie they never remember who came in second in this tournament," he said. Although the remark was not addressed to him, Jack Nicklaus agreed. It was Nicklaus, not Jacobs, who finally got enough control of his game to insure victory.
As the playoff got under way it was quickly obvious that Jacobs, at least, was not particularly in awe of Big Jack. He started off grandly with a 25-foot birdie putt to take the lead at the first hole, although Nicklaus caught him on the 2nd with a big birdie of his own. Each played steady, thoughtful and deliberate golf through the first nine holes, and they both finished one under par at 35. Brewer, meanwhile, was fading out of contention. He failed to sink a series of short putts the like of which he has not missed in months—except, of course, for the crucial one on Sunday.
As the threesome turned into the back nine, Nicklaus slowly edged his way into a lead that Jacobs could not close. He sank a marvelous 25-foot putt for a birdie at the 11th and at the treacherous 12th hole he found himself with a two-stroke lead over Jacobs and three over Brewer. It was here that Brewer's day came to an end. He hooked his tee shot into the water and took a double-bogey 5, a disaster that made the bogies of Jacobs and Nicklaus look good. Jacobs held on stubbornly, in spite of missing relatively short putts that would have closed the gap at the 12th, 13th and 14th holes, but Nicklaus was just not going to blow it all again.
At 15, a par-5, Jacobs knew he had to go for an eagle. He hit his second shot high above the water guarding the front edge of the green but he couldn't bear to watch it. Instead, he turned to the gallery for the first hint of whether his ball had carried the creek. It had, and Jacobs had a cinch birdie. But Nicklaus, trifled with long enough, now came up with a critical shot, a 15-foot birdie putt that went squarely into the center of the hole. There was no real chance after that for Jacobs to make up two strokes. Nicklaus, playing conservatively as the twilight faded into near darkness, finished par-par-par and became the first man ever successfully to defend a Masters title. It was dark when Jack walked off the 18th green—the playoff had taken an agonizing five hours to complete—and the unusual scene that followed was in keeping with the bizarre events of this Masters. There on the putting green in front of the Augusta National clubhouse, with the gallery squinting through the night, Jack prepared to receive his third green coat in four years. "I'm sure you can all hear me, if you can't see me," began Tournament Director Clifford Roberts. "At this point, Jack," said Bobby Jones, "you as defending champion are supposed to put the green coat on the winner. Cliff and I have discussed the problem, and have decided you will just have to put the coat on yourself." Which Nicklaus did.
If this 30th Masters championship had a frantic—though eventually formful—ending, it also had a distinctive beginning.
Almost as if it were a ritual, the first day of a Masters is devoted to savoring the warm, moist air of the Georgia springtime, relishing the tradition and beauty of a great golf tournament and watching for the pattern of the whole event to evolve as the players cautiously feel their way through the opening round. But this opening day was different. The weather was cold and annoying, with the wind whipping the Spanish moss off trees and rolling it across fairways like tumbleweed. An "improved" section of the course was out of control, and the only pattern was chaos. Instead of tranquillity there was, thanks to Jack Nicklaus and a place called Amen Corner, constant excitement.
In the preceding days there had been much talk about the course. There always is before play begins, but this time there were things to talk about. The fairways were hard, what the players call a "fast track," and the grass on them was unusually long, making it doubly difficult to control approach shots. But the chilly wind was also making the huge, undulating greens unpredictable, which put a heavy premium on getting the approach shots close to the pins. "This is the first time in some years that the course played the way we wanted it to," Bobby Jones was to say later.