Commentary

Come on, Jackson!

Updated: April 6, 2011, 3:55 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

The scariest question I ever had to ask was 25 years ago, on the Wednesday of what would become the most unforgettable Masters week ever.

I was greener than an Augusta fairway then. I was 28 and had never covered a Masters, never written golf for Sports Illustrated and never met my idol, Jack Nicklaus.

Nicklaus meant more to me than golf. He was one of the few people I could talk to my dad about. For most of my first 20 years, the two things my dad did best were booze and golf. He was scratch at both. Sunday mornings, though, came down mean and hungover. You'd tiptoe until you heard him leave for the course.

But on one Sunday in April, he wouldn't go play golf. He'd watch the back nine of the Masters. And I could sit there and watch it with him.

His favorite player was Jack. So my favorite player was Jack. He wore yellow shirts because Jack wore yellow shirts. We might not have one single other thing to talk about, but we could always talk Jack. "C'mon, Jackson!" he'd coo to the TV. Now here I was having to ask our hero the unthinkable. Shaking, I stopped him just outside the Champions Locker Room in the Augusta National clubhouse.

"Uh, Mr. Nicklaus, we hear you're broke."

Stare. Blink. Gulp.

Nicklaus took me into that sacred room and explained that he wasn't really broke. He was just overextended on some golf-course projects.

That figured. Nicklaus was 46 and trying to fit golf in as a hobby between business and kids. In seven tournaments that year, he'd made $4,404. He was 160th on the money list.

He hadn't won a major in six years. The Golden Bear was rusted through. If anything, it seemed as if he had given up. He wasn't even using his usual Augusta caddie, Willie Peterson. Instead, he was using his 24-year-old son, Jackie.

Imagine that, I thought. All that time with your dad. Sober. On a golf course.

Then, out of nowhere, it started raining 1972.

Using what seemed to be a metal mop -- that huge Response ZT -- Nicklaus began making Sunday putts from everywhere but the Piggly Wiggly market across the street.

Birdies at 9, 10, 11. People started double-checking their prescriptions. Is that really Jack Nicklaus on the leaderboard? He hasn't won here in 11 years!

A bogey at 12, then an epic 3-iron to set up birdie at 13 and a delicious 5-iron to set up eagle at 15.

Fans started abandoning their posts and beelining for Nicklaus. I remember Nick Price and Greg Norman having maybe 150 people following them and Norman was 1 shot out of the lead. It was as if the whole golf course suddenly heaved up and tilted down toward the 16th tee.

He striped a 5-iron to three feet, though he couldn't see it. "Be right," Jackie said. "It is," his dad replied.

There stood Jack -- back.

He striped a 5-iron to three feet, though he couldn't see it.

"Be right," Jackie said.

"It is," his dad replied.

As I wrote then in SI, in a place where running is forbidden, everybody was running. I saw an elderly Southern woman in heels running. I saw a man in a tie climb a tree. I saw an employee abandon his pimento-cheese sandwich stand and run for 17, screeching to himself in delight, "He's hot! He's hot!"

So few times are there father-son moments that reach down your throat and shake you, but this was one. In Cypress, Calif., 10-year-old Tiger Woods watched with his dad. In South Africa, 16-year-old Ernie Els was allowed to stay up through the night, watching with his dad. A part of me wished I was sitting near my dad, then 68, long since permanently sober, cooing, "C'mon, Jackson!"

Cue Nicklaus trying to take the lead for the first time. Cue Verne Lundquist's famous, "Maybe & Yes, sir!" Cue pandemonium. I've been in the loudest American stadiums. I've been on the deck of aircraft carriers. But that roar at 17 was the loudest outdoor sound I've ever heard.

Because I didn't see it. I heard it. And that's when I knew a man I never thought I'd see win again was leading the 50th Masters. I sprinted for the reporters' tower at 18, where I climbed the ladder in time to see him line up a 45-footer. That putt was trouble for anybody but Jack, who had redesigned the green himself that offseason. He lagged it to a foot and tapped in for a back-nine 30, the best nine holes in an epic golf life.

This couldn't hold up, right? With eight players left on the course? No way a kid sports writer could get this lucky on his first golf assignment ever, could he?

With Nicklaus off it, all the magic left the course. Seve Ballesteros at 15: Chunk into the creek. Tom Kite's putt to tie on 18: Lip out. Norman, the last man with a chance: Spinning out on his 4-iron and straight into second place. And that was history. Golf's greatest player had just won golf's greatest tournament when the odds against him doing it had never been greater. His sixth jacket fit the best.

Turns out Jack wasn't broke at all.

Afterward, veteran golf writers' throats were closing fast. One old guy with nothing on his Olivetti had his head in his hands and was going, "This is just too BIG!"

It was big. And if Woods ends up one major short of Nicklaus, it will be even bigger.

But I loved it for the way it shrank the distance between my dad and me. I loved it because I knew, as I was writing it, that my dad would read it, savoring each word as though we had seen it together.

My dad shrank as he aged, as did my fear of him. As men, we became friends.

And when we buried him, 21 Masters later, I was glad it was in a yellow shirt.


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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.


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