Boyette: Which Masters was better: 1986 or 2019?
The late Dan Jenkins once wrote the following about the 1986 Masters Tournament for Golf Digest:
“If you want to put golf back on the front pages again and you don’t have a Francis Ouimet, a Bobby Jones, or a Ben Hogan handy, you send an aging Jack Nicklaus out in the last round of the 1986 Masters and tell him to kill more foreigners than a general named Eisenhower. That’ll do it.”
Nicklaus’ sixth and final Masters triumph was indeed front-page news.
Thirty-three years later, Tiger Woods’ fifth Masters victory put golf back on the front pages in a big way. USA Today, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among many others, had photos of Woods and the story of his comeback win at the top of their front pages.
Those weren’t the only similarities between 1986 and 2019. The debate is already raging on which tournament was better, and if Woods can overtake Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional majors.
PHOTOS: Tiger's Sunday Final Round
As someone who covered both the 1986 Masters and the latest edition at Augusta National, here’s my take on several aspects:
The action: 1986 was far more exciting from a pure golf standpoint. Nicklaus trailed by four entering the final round, and he wasn’t doing much until he went on a birdie streak from Nos. 9-11. After a bogey at 12, Nicklaus produced some magical moments: the eagle at the 15th, the near ace at 16 and the “maybe ... yes sir!!” birdie putt on 17. He shot 65, including 30 on the final nine.
Woods trailed Francesco Molinari by two and finally caught him when the Italian made double at the par-3 12th. From there, Woods put on a clinic with two-putt birdies at 13 and 15 and a near-ace of his own at 16. He played 18 safe, knowing he could make bogey and still win. Advantage: 1986
The comeback: Nicklaus hadn’t won a major in six years or a regular PGA Tour event in two years. His company was reported to be going through some tough financial times, and Nicklaus was spending more time on business than he was his golf game. Remember, three decades ago, most golfers were done when they reached their 40s. But once he got into contention in the final round, the competitive juices kicked in and Nicklaus willed his way to victory.
Woods ended a five-year winless drought last September at the Tour Championship, and he had been in contention in the final two majors of 2018. So we knew he was capable of winning another. From a physical standpoint, what Woods endured with all of the back and knee surgeries is more than anything Nicklaus had to overcome. Advantage: 2019.
The roars: This one’s tricky for a number of reasons. Because of the threat of inclement weather, Woods teed off at 9:20 in the morning as the Masters went to split tees and an early start. Even though play was going on all around him, the bulk of the gallery was with the group of Woods, Molinari and Tony Finau. But when Tiger did something, you could distinguish his roars. And the thousands who assembled near the clubhouse and chanted “Tiger” over and over as he made his way to the scoring area gave me goosebumps.
Nicklaus went off with Sandy Lyle early in the afternoon in 1986. The patrons didn’t really start to focus on Nicklaus until he made the birdies at 9, 10 and 11, and then the already-packed Amen Corner got even more crowded. Nicklaus wasn’t in the final twosome, so he had to wait in the Jones Cabin for the final few pairings to finish. When Nicklaus did win and left the Butler Cabin ceremony, the scene was raucous. But it didn’t match this year. Advantage: 2019
The competition: There’s been a lot of discussion through the years on who faced tougher competition. Nicklaus had more top players to contend with, while Woods has played against deeper fields. In 1986, Nicklaus overcame this group of players: Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Tom Kite, Bernhard Langer, Tom Watson and Lyle. Donnie Hammond and Tommy Nakajima were the only players in front of him that weren’t future or current major champions.
Woods only had British Open champion Molinari ahead of him. Major champions Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen were all within five shots, but the majority of the top 10 had never won a major. Advantage: 1986
PHOTOS: Historical Masters Photos
The hugs: Both tournaments were emotional. Nicklaus had his eldest son, Jackie, on the bag, and the caddie was a big part of the story. When the Golden Bear poured in the eagle putt on 15, Jackie nearly jumped out of his sneakers. And the two shared an emotional embrace on the 18th green after Nicklaus had completed his round.
Woods hugged nearly everyone in sight, including his mother, his children and several members of his team. He shared an embrace with his late father when he won in Augusta for the first time in 1997, and this moment was just as special. Advantage: Push.
Nicklaus told Golf Channel that he and Woods both channeled their memory banks when they needed it most.
“Guys that really understand what they are doing, and what to do and how to play, they remember how to play and remember what to do when they need to do it,” Nicklaus said. “Tiger did that (Sunday), and I did that in ’86.”
Woods said 1986 was his first memory of the Masters, and he can still recall Nicklaus’s second shot into 15 and other details.
“1986, and he was 46 years old; I’m 43,” Woods said Sunday. “We had little spells in between. He had, what, six years or so I think where he didn’t win a major championship, and for me, it was 11 years. In either case, I think that’s what everyone else ... that’s for them to decide.”
There is no wrong answer to this debate. The golf was better in ‘86, and Tiger’s comeback from injuries is one of the greatest regardless of sport.
The real question is whether Woods can reach 18 or more majors. He’s got venues for the next two (PGA at Bethpage Black and U.S. Open at Pebble Beach) where he has won before. Other than Augusta National, he won’t play a site where he has won a major until 2021.
Look for Tiger to match or break Jack’s record that year at the British Open at St. Andrews.