Jack Nicklaus won record 18th major on this day in history - Sports Illustrated

This Day in Sports History: Jack Nicklaus Wins Record 18th Major

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Sporting checked pants and a yellow shirt, a 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus roared past eight players in the final round of the Masters to win his 18th and final major 34 years ago today.

On April 13, 1986, the Golden Bear recorded five birdies and an eagle on the back nine of the final round en-route to his landmark sixth green jacket

Nicklaus's final Masters triumph came improbably. At 46 years old, Nicklaus had not won a major in two years. In 1986, he had missed the cut in three of his previous seven tournaments and withdrew from a fourth. There were whispers of retirement.

"I read in the Atlanta paper this week that 46-year-olds don't win Masters," Nicklaus said at the time. "I kind of agreed. I got to thinking. Hmmm. Done, through, washed up. And I sizzled for a while. But I said to myself, I'm not going to quit now, playing the way I'm playing. I've played too well, too long to let a shorter period of bad golf be my last."

To get to that point, Nicklaus faced an uphill battle. He dug a hole for himself during the tournament's earlier rounds with his putting. On Thursday, he had 11 putts inside 15 feet and made just one. On Sunday's front nine, he missed two four-footers. 

"If I could just putt, I might just scare somebody," Nicklaus said on Friday. "Maybe me."

He scored 74 and 71 in the first two rounds of his 26th Masters. On Saturday, Nicklaus broke 70 for the first time "since I can't remember when"—scoring a 69 and holding a spot four strokes behind the leader, Greg Norman, heading into Sunday.

"My son Steve called me at the house we're renting this morning, and he asked me, 'Well, Pop, what's it going to take?'" Nicklaus said. "And I said, 'Sixty-six will tie and 65 will win.' And he said, 'Well, go ahead and do it.'"

Nicklaus's putting again prevented him from looking like a threat through Sunday's front nine. After missing four-footers at the fourth and sixth holes, he remained at two-under at the ninth tee and was five shots behind Norman.

Then the magic started. 

Nicklaus drained an 11-foot putt on the ninth hole to record his second birdie of the day. He followed that up with a 25-foot birdie on the 10th and another birdie on the 11th to put him two back of the new leader, Seve Ballesteros. 

He answered a bogey on the 12th with a birdie on the par-five 13th. Ballesteros one-upped him, finishing with an eagle on the hole.

Nicklaus responded with an eagle of his own on the par-five 15th hole. With three holes left, he remained two back of Ballesteros—and the crowd was getting louder.

Fans erupted further when Nicklaus nearly nailed a hole-in-one on the 16th hole, with the ball ending up three feet from the pin. Another birdie had Nicklaus in a three-way tie for the lead at eight-under-par with Ballesteros and Tom Kite. 

"I kept getting tears in my eyes," Nicklaus said. "It happened to me once at Baltusrol. But here, it happened four or five times. I had to say to myself, Hey, you've got some golf left to play."

Nicklaus took his first lead on the 17th hole, where he drained an 11-foot putt for a birdie. He held a one-stroke lead over Kite and Norman entering the 18th.

The roars at Augusta National were at their loudest as challenger Norman approached the final hole. Nicklaus had hit for par to round out a back nine score of six-under 30, a Masters record. Norman needed a birdie to take the victory, but his 16-foot putt missed left. 

Twenty-three years after he sported his first green jacket, Nicklaus had won his sixth and last—the most of anyone in history. 

"This was maybe as fine a round of golf as I've ever played," Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus' 18th major was the third he had won in his 40s, a first-time feat. While he went on to participate in the Senior PGA Tour, he did not retire from the sport of golf until 2005, when he was 65.

Six Masters, five PGA Championships, four U.S. Opens and three British Opens later, Nicklaus still holds a three-major lead in the record books over his closest competitor, Tiger Woods. The Golden Bear's 1986 Masters victory only added to his lore.