The forgotten story of … the 1966 Masters

How Jack Nicklaus overcame grief at the death of a friend and inconsistency on the course to become the first man to win back-to-back Green Jackets.

Jack Nicklaus tees off on the 16th tee during play off with Gay Brewer, Jr. and Tommy Jacobs looking on
Jack Nicklaus tees off on the 16th tee during play off with Gay Brewer and Tommy Jacobs looking on Photograph: Augusta National/Getty Images
Jack Nicklaus tees off on the 16th tee during play off with Gay Brewer and Tommy Jacobs looking on Photograph: Augusta National/Getty Images

Last modified on Tue 8 Nov 2016 07.16 EST

Arnold Palmer wasn’t particularly happy with his short game. There were only a couple of days to go before the start of the 30th Masters Tournament, and he was already struggling to make his wedges and putter talk on glacial greens which were only going to get faster once the Augusta greenkeeper took one last wheel around the place on his mower.

So shortly after breakfast on Tuesday morning, Palmer set off in his personal twin-engine jet to Chattanooga, a couple of hundred miles away. He collected a new pitching wedge and a couple of putters, made some alterations to the wedge he was already using, and was back at Augusta National in time for coffee at elevenses. The most expensive club repair of all time? Probably. But certainly the most stylish. You have got to love Arnie.

The gentle whimsy of Palmer’s 500mph groove-tweaking jaunt was, sad to say, not the sole aviation story that required reporting on the eve of the Masters. Tragedy struck the defending champion Jack Nicklaus hours before he was due to tee off, when he was told four close friends from his home town of Columbus, Ohio, including childhood playing partner Bob Barton, had been killed in a plane crash en route to Augusta. “I’m heart sick,” whispered a crestfallen Nicklaus. “Bob and I grew up together. We started playing golf together. I’ve lost a great friend.” Still, the show had to go on, and he made an earnest promise: “This tragedy has made me much more determined in what I hope to do this week.”

As ever at Augusta, the stars of yesteryear were in attendance. Here’s the legendary writer Pat Ward-Thomas, with a contemporaneous roll call of “the old masters whose golf down the generations has given the occasion its stature … the imperishable spirit of Bob Jones has overcome his grievous affliction and he is in his cottage across the way by the last green … the ageless Gene Sarazen … Craig Wood, so youthful looking and handsome that it is hard to believe he tied for the Open at St Andrews more than 30 years ago … the great Byron Nelson who this afternoon was presented with a replica of the Ryder Cup by his team … Jimmy Demaret, Cary Middlecoff, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, the mightiest of all, the shots pure as the light still gleaming from his clubs. His presence is no sentimental gesture.”

Ward-Thomas had that damn straight. “I am not here for sentimental reasons,” confirmed the 53-year-old, nine-time major winning, two-time Augusta-taming Iceman. “I am here to win.”

Also raging against the dying of the light, albeit in a more gentle form, were the 1908 US Open champion Fred McLeod and Jock Hutchinson, winner of the Open Championship in 1921, the first American to do so, albeit a naturalised one, born and raised in St Andrews. (Amazingly, that Open win was very nearly not Hutchinson’s most notable feat that year. During his march to the Championship, he came breathtakingly close to recording two hole in ones in a row, having aced the 8th before hitting his drive at the short par-four 9th to a couple of inches. But we digress.)

Jack Nicklaus presents the green jacket to himself as a consecutive winner.
Jack Nicklaus presents the green jacket to himself after winning the tournament twice in a row. Photograph: Augusta National/Getty Images

McLeod and Hutchinson, octogenarians both, creamed ceremonial opening drives down Tea Olive, then played the front nine for stakes of a beer a hole.

With the 1966 Masters under way, the grieving but steel-willed Nicklaus took early control.

He had been woefully out of form, having failed to win a tournament in six months. (And they say Jordan Spieth has problems.) “He’s not playing at all well at the moment,” the pre-tournament favourite Gary Player told the Observer. But Nicklaus shook it all off to start nervelessly. A fine four-under-par opening card of 68 meant he was the only player in the 103-strong field to shoot a sub-70 round, on a day of unpredictable and strong winds. At one point Billy Casper took a small pinch out of the Augusta fairway and tossed it into the sky to test the breeze, only for the entire handful to fly back into his startled face. “I ate some grass out there today,” he laughed, in good spirits after shooting a 71 that put him joint second alongside Don January, Mike Souchak and the amateur Charles Coe. Palmer, whose trip to Chattanooga looked to have been in vain, his wedge still playing up, shot 74. As did Player.

As, indeed, did Hogan, who had been one under through 13, only to falter with bogeys at 14, 16 and 17.

Nicklaus had by this point shot seven successive sub-par rounds at Augusta. But he couldn’t make it eight. He faded dramatically on Friday, shooting a four-over-par 76 while copping – though studiously ignoring – constant abuse from Arnie’s highly partial Army, a semi-regular feature of major tournaments back then. Jack’s putter was stone cold: he took five three-putts, and missed seven times from inside five feet. “I can’t remember the last time I putted so horribly,” he sighed. The 76 was his worst round at Augusta since he shot the same score on his very first attempt as a 19-year-old amateur in the 1959 Masters. Ominously for the field, his spirit remained unbroken. “Outside of that putting, I played pretty darn good. But you have to play a bad round here sometime, and I had mine.”

Palmer, his short game for a while much improved – perhaps that 500mph round-trip wasn’t such a bad idea after all – reached the turn in 32. But he made three bogeys on the back nine and had to settle for a slightly disappointing 70. “That’s been my trouble lately,” he cried. “I’ve been playing one good nine and one bad nine.” Hogan by contrast was the model of consistency, hitting all but one green in regulation for a smooth and steady 71. So after 36 holes, the 1951 and 1953 winner Hogan was two off the lead; the reigning champ Nicklaus was one off it, alongside the 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964 victor Palmer. Some leaderboard, huh.

But at the very top at the halfway mark were a couple of slightly less stellar individuals: Paul Harney of Massachusetts, who shot a second-round 68 despite five and six at the par-four 10th and 11th; and Peter Butler of Birmingham, who birdied 12 to move into red figures for the tournament, then stayed there, coming home with a steady run of pars. At one under for the tournament, Butler and Harney were the only men in the field below par.

The British, sadly, wouldn’t get a handle on the Masters for another couple of decades at least. On day three Butler made an awful balls of the two shortest par fours on the course. At the 3rd, he left his approach short, duffed a chip, and three putted for a double-bogey six.

Another double at 7, and he was out in 40. Back in 39, his bid was all over. Harney too let himself down, bogeying four holes in a row – 9, 10, 11 and 12 – and ended with a 76.

Butler would finish the tournament in a tie for 13th, and is now best remembered for a couple of top-10 finishes in the Open during the 1970s, plus the first-ever hole in one at a Ryder Cup in 1973. Harney ended the week tied for eighth, his third of four top-10 Masters finishes in the 1960s. High quality work, but even high quality isn’t enough of a guarantee around Augusta.

The third round was unspectacular. Nicklaus led the way for most of it, but bogeyed 17 and 18 to sign for a 72. Palmer went round in 74, having thinned a three-wood into Rae’s Creek at 13.

Hogan – who went round with Arnie, commanding the majority of the day’s gallery – went one better with a 73. (Arnie later admitted to easing off the gas when driving in Hogan’s meticulous presence. “I was just trying to keep the ball in the fairway and keep from being embarrassed,” he respectfully explained.) By the end of the day, Nicklaus was tying for the lead at level par for the tournament with Tommy Jacobs, who had shot an impressive but unexciting 70. January was one behind, with Palmer, Hogan and Gay Brewer a further shot back. It was on!

The final day’s play, like much of what had gone before, would not be of the highest quality.

But it sure was exciting. Nicklaus went out last with Hogan (whose energy ran out, the old boy finishing with a disappointing 77). The Golden Bear initially looked like losing an ongoing tussle with a recalcitrant hook over the early part of his round, dropping shots at 1, 4 and 7.

Jack Nicklaus watches his ball into the hole for a birdie on the 6th green during the 1966 Masters play-off.
Jack Nicklaus watches his ball drop into the hole for a birdie on the 6th green during the 1966 Masters play-off. Photograph: AP

Those bogeys were offset by birdies at 2 and 8, but he made the turn in 37 strokes, by which point he was trailing Palmer, who with birdies at 7 and 8 had gone out in 34, and the new leader Brewer, who alongside his playing partner Arnie had taken only 33 strokes over the front nine.

Palmer couldn’t keep it going on the way home. He took three putts from short distance on the par-three 12th, birdied the par-five 13th, but handed the shot straight back again at 14 and failed to repair the damage on the long 15th. Pushing hard, he drove into trouble at the last and bogeyed. A 72. His recent sequence of winning the Masters every other year, started in 1958, had come to an end.

Nicklaus looked to be out of it after a bogey at 10, but birdies at 14 and 15 hauled him back into the picture. The other overnight leader, Jacobs, had dropped shots at 8 and 10, but bounced back with birdies at 13 and 15. Brewer, meanwhile, parred his way from 10 through to 17. He would reach the clubhouse first. At one point he had enjoyed a three-shot lead over Nicklaus and Jacobs but, standing on the 18th tee, was now only one stroke ahead of the pair at one under.

It still could have – probably should have – been enough. Brewer creamed his drive down the middle of 18. Faced with a simple nine-iron approach, he took a flier to the back of the green, and couldn’t get down in two from 60 feet. A bogey at the last. His 70 brought him to level par, alongside Nicklaus and Jacobs, still out on the course.

Jacobs made a routine par on 17, then pushed his drive at 18 into trees. The ball ricocheted back out onto the fairway, a lucky break. But he was left with a mammoth 220 yards to the green. And here comes the shot of the week: a whipped four-wood to 20 feet under the most extreme pressure. Two solid putts later for par, and he had tied with Brewer. Jacobs was in a play-off – unless Nicklaus, the last contender still out there, could magic up a birdie.

Nicklaus should have come up with the goods. On 16, he gave himself a makeable 12-footer, but didn’t threaten the cup. Then on 17, he eased a glorious nine-iron to three feet, but by his own admission, years later, misread the break and made a poor stroke, the ultimate double whammy. His putter had let him down yet again. So golf being golf, he very nearly drained a 40-footer on the last for birdie and outright victory. But his ball drifted off to the left at the very last turn. “The best putt I ever hit that didn’t go in the hole,” he later reckoned. The Masters would go to a three-way play-off.

Jacobs, who had hung around without ever getting into a position to go for the win, seemed happy enough. But neither Nicklaus nor Brewer were quite so relaxed. In the moment, Nicklaus had yet to come to terms with his putting error on 17. “I hit a good putt,” he lied to the press, but mainly to himself. “The break isn’t there.” Brewer meantime was straight to the point: “I’m depressed.”

Brewer would be thoroughly miserable after the Monday 18-hole play-off. He shot a six-over 78, out of contention pretty much from the get-go. Jacobs kept pace with Nicklaus until he approached the turn, before dropping shots at 9, 10 and 12. Nicklaus dropped shots at 9 and 12 too, but picked one up at 11 after tickling in a 25-foot downhiller. (He had reconfigured his putting mechanism the previous evening after watching footage of himself on television. To celebrate his solving of a problem that had bugged him all week, he went home and ate three and a half tenderloins.)

Jack Nicklaus and his Caddie Willie Peterson show their delight after a putt at the 1966 Masters.
Jack Nicklaus and his Caddie Willie Peterson show their delight after a putt at the 1966 Masters. Photograph: Augusta National/Getty Images

That birdie on 11 was the momentum shifter. Jack was two clear of Jacobs, and from that position matched his closest rival shot for shot over the closing holes. In doing so, he became the first man to win back-to-back Green Jackets. He draped his new one over his shoulders himself.

A slight air of anticlimax, then, though the members of the Augusta gallery were excitable enough. On CBS Television, the commentator Jack Whitaker referred to the patrons circling the 18th green with a word Clifford Roberts, the notoriously stern Augusta National chairman, didn’t particularly like. “Here comes the mob!” trilled Whitaker, as the gallery made its jaunty way up the last fairway for the denouement. Whitaker then compounded his error by failing to mention that Nicklaus would be awarded the Green Jacket on the practice green, even though CBS would not be covering the ceremony, as Walter Cronkite was waiting to read the news. A piqued Roberts encouraged CBS to replace Whitaker for the following year’s event, though the broadcaster was eventually allowed back to work the Masters beat in 1972.

There would be a quicker reprieve for Brewer, though. Having passed up a glorious chance to win the Masters, the poor man had been roundly written off as a player who could never possibly bounce back from such a bitter disappointment. Golf being golf, the very next year Brewer birdied 13, 14 and 15 on Sunday to claim the coveted Green Jacket, a stroke ahead of the former PGA champion Bobby Nichols. “I may be the happiest man in history,” smiled an emotionally spent Brewer when asked to sum up his very popular victory. “I’m choking up!”

As for Nicklaus, chasing three in a row? He shot a second-day 79 and became the first defending champion to miss the cut. Nobody’s perfect.

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