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Thursday, April 15, 2004
Updated: May 31, 2:21 PM ET
Remembering the Golden Bear

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Editor's Note: This column appears in the April 26 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

Every time the Masters rolls around, I find myself drifting back to 1986. And I guess the question is this: why?

What About Lefty?
Note from Simmons:

If you're wondering why Phil Mickelson wasn't mentioned in this column ...

My deadline for turning it into the magazine preceded the conclusion of the Masters on Sunday. In other words, I ended up shattering my own personal record for "Shortest Time Elapsed After Writing A Column Where I Wanted to Rewrite it" (set last November when I picked the Celts to finish third in the East, then found out one week later that Raef LaFrentz needed knee surgery).

In retrospect, I underestimated two things here: A.) the chances of Mickelson getting over the hump (I never imagined he had it in him); and B.) the degree to which people jumped on the bandwagon as the weekend dragged on (although I still don't think the whole turn of events came close to approaching Nicklaus in '86). But hey, at least golf was interesting again ... even if it was probably a one-time thing.
I've never been one of those things-were-better-in-the-old-days guys. I like things now. Even wrote an entire column about it last year. And yet those highlights of Nicklaus rising from the dead and capturing that sixth green jacket ... I can't describe what happens to me. It's like Rip Taylor just threw a bag of goose bumps on me. Sometimes I even make the same face that Tom Cruise makes after Goose dies.

What's more amazing; that the whole thing happened or that somebody hasn't made a crappy sports movie about it yet? Even 18 years later, I still remember that entire Sunday. Spent the morning caddying. Flicked on the Masters to see how Greg Norman was doing, since he was the only likable guy left on the leader board. And there's Nicklaus banking par after par, five strokes back, a bigger afterthought than Dan Aykroyd in the "We Are the World" video.

Then it starts. Jack quietly birdies 9, 10 and 11, including a 25-foot putt on the 10th that puts everyone on full-scale Jack Alert. He bogeys 12, but a buzz builds throughout the golf course, almost like a sonic version of dominoes. You could not ask for a better way to psych out a leader board. Here comes Jack ... wait a second: Jack!?! Norman blinks first, double-bogeying 10. Jack treads water for two more holes, improbably reaches the par-five 15th in two (chaos), then drains the eagle putt (pandemonium). I mean, this is the Golden Bear! At age 46! I defy you to find another situation where more fans were rooting for one person at the same time. It's like the USA hockey team in 1980, if it were made up of washed-up NHL legends. As a competitive golfer, Jack was pretty much through. No signs of life, no hints, nothing. You couldn't even call this a last hurrah. It was more of a resurrection.

Naturally, Jack is eating this up. He walks gingerly to the par-3 16th, silly smile on his face, and knocks a five-iron to within four feet of the pin. Of course he does. Now there are noises heard that fans simply don't make anymore. The CBS camera on the 16th is shaking. Even Pat Summerall's voice jumps about five notches. If your name isn't Nicklaus, you don't have a chance in this atmosphere. Poor Seve Ballesteros folds in sections, duck-hooking one into the water at 15. You can feel the life sink from his body. It's like he just saw the Blair Witch. He's tied with Jack. But not for long. See if this one sounds familiar: Maybe ... maybeee ... YES SIR!!!!!!!

 
Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus watches his birdie putt drop on 17, which gave him the lead in the '86 Masters.
Yup. Another birdie on 17. A twisting 11-footer, to boot. Once you hear the sound from the gallery, once you see Jack raise his putter in the air as the putt drops -- I'm back, baby! -- you know it's over. How could anyone foil something this stupendous? Jack settles for par on 18, hugs his caddy -- who just happens to be his overjoyed son, Jackie (again, how has this not been made into a movie?) -- then gets some help. Tom Kite barely misses a birdie putt on 18. He's done. Norman battles valiantly until the final hole (playoff?), then puts a Judge Smails-level slice on his approach. He's done.

There's nobody left. Jack wins.

Here's the best way I can describe it. Imagine Dad winning the Masters. And since that can't happen, imagine the next-best thing. Like Ali and McEnroe, Jack belonged to another era, a time when individual athletes resonated with people.

Heroes emerge only from team sports today -- sometimes too soon, as Griffey Jr. and Kobe proved -- with boxers and tennis players unable to inspire any sense of collective attachment. Among current golfers, only Tiger matters, and he's always been more machine than man, as if he emerged from the womb wearing a Nike hat and drilling five-woods. Nobody can identify with him, and nobody seems interested in trying.

Do we know too much about these guys now? Do they make too much money? Are we stuck in a personality drought? Have we gravitated toward team sports for that sense of belonging, the chance to share a common rooting interest with an extended group of people? Whatever the reason, men's tennis and boxing have become second-tier sports. And golf seems to be headed that way.

Only Tiger can change that. But it will take a few years. Imagine him in 2024, balder than Phil Martelli, still wearing that Nike cap, struggling to find the remnants of his game, one more miracle lurking inside him. Then, and only then, will he finally seem human. Just like Nicklaus in '86. I just wonder if we'll care.

I hope so.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, as well as one of the writers for "Jimmy Kimmel Live" on ABC