- Ian O’Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, “The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter.” ESPN Radio broadcasts “The Ian O’Connor Show” every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »
This is an entirely fictitious account of what might have been had Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus met at the Masters near the end of their primes.
Close your eyes, open your mind and imagine the unimaginable. Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus standing on the first tee at Augusta National, in the final Sunday pairing, way out in front of the Masters field by Secretariat-at-the-Belmont lengths. The coronavirus pandemic has finally receded and allowed this heavenly vision for fans so desperate to have sports back in their lives.
This could never happen in reality, of course, with Woods at age 44 and Nicklaus at 80. But we need some fantasy sports in our lives right about now, so let’s dial back the Nicklaus clock and make the Golden Bear 47, in full possession of his record 18 major championships. (He won No. 18 at 46, at Augusta.) Let’s put aside all that old footage of classic matchups and embrace this as the real thing, game on between Nicklaus and Woods. Tiger and Jack nearing the tail end of their primes, compelling fans and sports journalists everywhere to bill this final round of the Masters as the last meaningful battle between Woods and Nicklaus — the battle for the title of greatest player of all time.
Here we go.
The way this storybook tale unfolds, a Tiger and a Bear each wanted to be a GOAT, and only one would walk away from Augusta National on this day believing he had settled the debate forevermore.
People in Jack’s camp pointed to their guy’s 18-15 lead in major championships — and 6-5 lead in green jackets — as proof that Nicklaus held the edge on the GOAT scoreboard. People in Tiger’s camp pointed to their guy’s 82-73 lead in PGA Tour victories — and stretches of play more dominant than Jack ever delivered — as proof that Woods deserved the historical nod.
Their head-to-head stats did nothing to move the needle in either direction. Strangely enough, Nicklaus and Woods had only played together in the final group of a tournament a half-dozen times, each winning three. Tiger had spent much of his career trying to match and surpass the slightly older Jack’s amateur and pro standards, and now here was the living target right in front of him with the whole world watching.
Tiger was dressed in his black Nike cap and terminator red shirt, his sculpted shoulders and arms and teenager’s waistline still projecting the look and vibe of a middleweight prizefighter. Jack did not wear a cap; he preferred to let his wavy blonde hair move with the breeze. He was dressed in his favorite yellow shirt, in honor of the teenage son of a friend and minister who had died of bone cancer. Nicklaus’ middle-age paunch spilled gently over his belt, but his 29.5-inch thighs packed inside his old-school plaid slacks reminded everyone of his explosive power and athleticism.
The Masters had never seen a gallery so deep, so electric, so tense with anticipation, around the first tee box. The sky was painfully blue and the sun felt seasonably warm. Jack and Tiger might have exchanged five or six words, tops, as they waited to strike their golf balls, surprising nobody. Nicklaus and Woods had been jabbed over the years for wearing those invisible “Do Not Disturb” signs around their necks, whether in the company of fellow competitors or fans. They had lightened up some as they aged, but still: They did not believe in making eye contact, or in engaging the masses like Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson did. Jack and Tiger believed in beating their opponents, nothing more or less.
“Play loose, but intense,” Tiger’s caddie, Joe LaCava, told his man in the final seconds before impact. Woods knew exactly what LaCava meant. A hopelessly devoted Giants fan from Connecticut, LaCava was wearing a Lawrence Taylor jersey under his white jumpsuit, his way of adding to the greatest-of-all-time proceedings.
To a deafening roar, Woods lashed his opening tee shot into the fairway and gave way to Nicklaus. “Nice and easy Pops,” said Jack’s son and caddie, Jackie Jr., who was wearing the same number on his jumpsuit — 89 — that he wore for his father’s most stirring Masters victory. For some reason the Nicklaus boys only recently started calling their old man “Pops.” Jack grabbed his driver, glared a Nicklausian hole through his ball, and then launched his power fade high and far as the crowd went mad. His ball came to rest 10 yards past Tiger’s.
The day’s first statement had been made. Woods and Nicklaus marched far apart up the fairway — no revived social-distance regulations needed for these two — and started playing their own fantasy-golf tournament with very real ramifications.
Jack blinked first on No. 4. The two men had played relatively conservatively over the first three holes, feeling each other out, though Woods and Nicklaus both managed two-putt birdies at No. 2. But after misjudging the swirling wind, Jack failed to get up-and-down out of the front right bunker at No. 4, a fitting place to stumble: Nicklaus had birdied every hole at the Masters at least 10 times in his career, except for No. 4.
Woods responded a bit nervously to the opening by landing his next tee shot in one of the bunkers on the left side of the forbidding fifth. Nicklaus followed with his best drive of the day, struck with some anger, before Tiger sprayed his bunker shot to the right amid yet another misadventure at No. 5, which Woods had bogeyed four straight times during his 2019 comeback victory. Jack then followed with a thunderous jolt that all but dropped Woods to his knees. He sent his 6-iron approach dead at the flag, and the damn thing hopped into the hole on one bounce for Nicklaus’ third career eagle at the fifth — third — creating a mind-blowing second-nine sound on the first-nine hole that Jack had called the toughest par-4 on the course. Nicklaus threw back his head and lifted his arms in touchdown form.
The sudden swing in momentum and 2-shot lead seemed to relax Nicklaus as they waited on the sixth tee. Jack glanced at Tiger, who was deep in conversation with LaCava; the caddie appeared to be giving his man an earful about losing his focus on the previous hole. Jack was actually happy that Tiger was back after all the injuries and surgeries, and back as defending Masters champion. Nicklaus never wanted Woods to break his record of 18 major titles, but he always maintained that he didn’t want Woods to fail in his pursuit because of injury. Jack wanted to beat Tiger fair and square.
They each made par on the sixth and seventh holes, and birdied the par-5 eighth. But No. 9 has never been Nicklaus’ favorite tee shot, as it rewards the player who makes his living on a long draw. Jack hit an indifferent fade to the right side, leaving himself a less comfortable angle and distance into the uphill green. Fearful of ending up above the stick, Nicklaus hit his approach short and watched in disgust as his ball spun off the green and toward the fairway. Expecting bogey from Jack, Tiger played for par and landed his second shot above the hole and, much like in 2019, hit a masterful right-to-left downhill putt that stopped just short of the cup. Woods had cut the deficit to one with nine holes to play.
The nine holes that represented golf’s answer to Carnegie Hall.
“You’re looking at the guy who first wrote the line that the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday,” sportswriting god Dan Jenkins tweeted in 2014. “Wish I’d copyrighted it.”
Nicklaus and Woods cautiously maneuvered their way through Nos. 10 and 11, then walked into an ovation at the 12th tee that neither would ever forget. All day Jack and Tiger had kept their conversation to a bare minimum, as expected, with nothing offered outside the boundaries of an occasional “nice putt” or “good shot.” But their caddies, LaCava and Jackie Jr., spent a lot of greenside time shoulder to shoulder talking about sports, the tour life, course conditions, you name it. The caddies realized that part of their job on this day was to reduce the tension as much as possible. And it wasn’t that possible.
As he surveyed his options, Woods glanced over at Nicklaus and his son. Tiger adored Jack’s saintly wife, Barbara (who didn’t?), and he always appreciated how Jackie Jr. carried himself with dignity and grace. It couldn’t be easy, Tiger figured, to be named after a colossal American sports figure who also happens to be your dad. Tiger couldn’t imagine what it would be like for his son, Charlie, if he grew up with the name Tiger Woods Jr.
Facing the most frightening tee shot on the course, Woods hit his 9-iron safely over the bunker and onto the green, 15 feet from the hole. Nicklaus couldn’t believe a year earlier how Tiger’s contenders had played too aggressively to the right of that bunker and watched their wind-aided balls dive into Rae’s Creek. He grabbed an 8-iron from Jackie Jr. and fully intended to play it safe. But golf is the world’s most maddeningly fickle game, and sometimes it inspires even the best of the best to commit unforced errors. For some godforsaken reason, halfway through his downswing, Nicklaus decided to take a little off his fastball. As soon as he made contact Jack knew it wasn’t enough. He had just made the same mistake that everyone else made against Tiger in 2019. His ball drifted right, landed on the bank, and dribbled feebly into the creek.
No fans celebrated with high-fives like they did a year ago; there was far too much reverence for Nicklaus, and the crowd was split 50-50, anyway, for Jack and Tiger. (It had been 95-5 for Tiger and against Francesco Molinari/Tony Finau/Brooks Koepka.) Woods made par, and Nicklaus saved bogey. It was all even with six holes to play.
The clubhouse and cabins were filling up with players, family members, and officials crowded around every available TV. Jack and Tiger birdied 13 like they always did, after hitting the green in two, and then made par at 14 to turn it into a four-hole tournament. They had a minute on the 15th tee, and Jack actually initiated a brief chat with Tiger.
Nicklaus thought of saying something to Woods along the lines of what Tom Watson had said to him on the 14th tee of their Open Championship duel at Turnberry. (“Jack, this is what it’s all about,” Watson had told him. “You bet it is,” Nicklaus had responded.) But Jack thought better of it, and simply told Tiger that he thought his iron game was superior to Ben Hogan’s. Woods liked the sound of that, and smiled. As the 1997 Masters champ, young Tiger had called Hogan two months before his death to express his appreciation for his skill and resolve.
“Thanks Jack,” Tiger said. “I’ve always admired every aspect of your game.” And that was that.
The two titans stood in the 15th fairway, Woods ready to play first; Nicklaus had spent much of the afternoon a good 5-10 yards ahead of his opponent, his length generated by those NFL fullback legs. Neither man gave any thought to laying up and attempting a difficult downhill pitch. Tiger had a 5-iron for a perilous second shot into a shallow green guarded by water — the shot is all but tantamount to trying to land a golf ball on the hood of a car.
Nicklaus and Woods fully understood that the 15th can make or break a man. Gene Sarazen scored his double-eagle here in 1935, and Nicklaus, of course, eagled here during his charge for a sixth green jacket in 1986. Back then, it was a 4-iron shot from 202 yards to 12 feet, then pumping his fists. (Tiger said it was the first time he’d seen someone celebrate an iron into a green.) But Woods had also cost himself a chance at winning here in 2013 by bouncing a perfect wedge shot off the stick and into the pond, and then by taking an illegal drop that nearly got him DQ’d.
This time Tiger’s perfect shot from longer distance met no such bloody end. Woods twirled his club as he realized his ball was staying left of the right bunker, and heading straight for paydirt. The ball landed softly, as if struck by a 9-iron, and settled 10 feet left of the stick as the roars made the earth shake. Tiger bumped fists with LaCava, and then stopped to watch Jack try to match him. Nicklaus took a healthy rip at his 6-iron, then used his gloved hand to shade his eyes against the falling sun to watch his shot as it sailed a bit right, into the sand. The crowd groaned, but Jack knew there were far worse places to be on that hole. Nicklaus would hit an effortless bunker shot to two feet, tap in for birdie, and take a temporary one-shot lead.
Woods stalked his eagle putt, about a 10-inch left-to-right breaker that mirrored Nicklaus’ most famous Masters eagle — at least before Jack’s one-hopper at the fifth earlier this afternoon. LaCava confirmed the read, and with the gallery as quiet as a shuttered church at midnight, Woods sent his putt on its way. There was never a doubt. The place exploded as the ball disappeared, and Jack and Jackie immediately lowered their heads down and walked purposefully toward the 16th tee, down a stroke with three to go.
Verne Lundquist of CBS had to be in the tower for this one. He had called Jack’s famous “Yes, sirrrrr” putt on the 17th, and Tiger’s famous “Oh my goodness … oh, wow … in your life have you seen anything like that?” chip-in at the 16th, and, seemingly, just about every other indelible sports moment over the last 35 years.
Tiger picked 8-iron. Jack picked 8-iron. Woods landed his ball on the right side of the green — of course he did — and watched it trickle down the slope and past the cup before stopping five feet away. Lundquist, the ultimate pro’s pro, let the moment speak for itself. “Kid’s got a pretty bright future, doesn’t he?” Lundquist finally joked on CBS. Knowing he couldn’t afford to fall 2 strokes back, Nicklaus tugged at his yellow shirt, studied the flagstick with those piercing blue eyes, and then lashed at his ball. “Be the right club,” Jackie pleaded, just as he had on this tee box the last time his old man won the Masters. This time Jack didn’t answer, “It is,” as he reached down for his tee. Jack just picked up his head, watched his ball stop 3 feet inside of Tiger’s, and then winked at his son. Nobody within three country miles could hear himself or herself think.
“Great shot, Jack,” Tiger shouted above the din. Woods was enjoying this as much as he’d enjoyed any round he’s ever played. He appreciated the fact that Nicklaus was engaging him at the highest level of competition. This was indeed what it was all about.
“Take a look at this putt,” Woods said to LaCava. The caddie shot his man an incredulous look. “Just put it in the effin’ hole,” LaCava said. Tiger laughed. They had that kind of relationship. Woods sank his putt, and then Nicklaus tapped in his, and after Jack failed to birdie the 17th — he did scare the hole from 20 feet away — Tiger stepped onto the 18th tee box with a one-stroke advantage, exactly where he wanted to be.
On Sunday evening at the Masters, this final tee shot can leave a contender feeling like he’s locked inside a phone booth. The fans, shadows and trees are all closing in, and choking is a readily available option. Woods had done a terrific job all day hitting fairways, and now he just needed to split the bunkers on the left and the pines on the right, take his par, and force Nicklaus to make birdie to send the Masters to overtime.
On cue, Woods sent his drive whistling into the belly of the fairway and then stepped to the side. Jack thought Tiger had crowded the box on him a couple of times during the round, but didn’t say anything. This time Nicklaus shot Woods a look, and Tiger moved back another two steps. Jack had sometimes hit 3-wood off this tee in the past while playing position golf, but he needed the long ball here. Jack aimed for the right corner of the bunker and, on cue, delivered his most majestic power fade of the day that turned perfectly into the dogleg right. His ball was a dozen yards clear of Tiger’s.
“Biggest crowd I’ve ever seen here,” Woods told LaCava on the uphill walk to his drive. “By far.”
Tiger’s mother, son, daughter and girlfriend were waiting breathlessly behind the green. Jack’s family members, including Barbara, were back there, too. Tiger eyed the front-left pin placement. “Middle of the green,” LaCava advised him. The caddie thought two putts would be plenty good enough. But the moment Woods struck his 8-iron, he knew he probably wouldn’t need two putts. The ball almost landed in the cup on the fly, and came to rest 4-and-a-half feet from victory. Not a gimme, but when does Tiger Woods ever miss that putt?
Nicklaus gave the crowd time to come back to earth, then sized up his immense challenge. He had 9-iron in his hands, from a distance that made 18 a birdie hole for him. He had no choice but to somehow place his ball inside of Tiger’s, like he had done at the 16th. Jack felt the adrenaline coursing through him, and yet he didn’t account for its impact on the shot. He crushed his 9-iron, and retreated from it as soon as he started tracking its flight. His ball ended up 26 feet above the stick, inspiring the most deflating groan from a gallery dying for this drama to get extended to a 19th hole.
The greenside fans gave the arriving players a standing ovation that just wouldn’t end. Tiger removed his cap, and Jack waved with both hands. Woods marked his ball, and then studied Nicklaus as Jack studied his line.
“He’s going to make it,” Tiger told his caddie. “He’s going to make me make mine.”
Never has any golf crowd been so certain of a player draining a must-have 26-foot downhill putt. Nicklaus folded his body into that trademark Golden Bear crouch over his ball, looked up three times to stare down the cup, and then let it roll. Jack started walking toward the ball 5 feet from its destination. It caught the left side of the cup, and dropped.
From under his cap, Tiger looked at LaCava and smiled. This “match” was ending the only way it could. Woods replaced his ball, removed his marker, and then crouched down for a final review of the line. He didn’t bother to ask LaCava for a read, because he already knew the profane response he would have received.
Woods took a deep breath. “Keep it together,” he told himself. “Stay focused. Commit.” He would be firm on this 5-footer, and allow for no break. Tiger took one last look at the hole, lowered his chin, and then fired. Dead center. Tiger Woods had just won the most memorable Masters of them all.
He threw his arms high and let out a scream from his toes. Even before he hugged his caddie, Woods removed his cap and headed straight for Nicklaus. Long known as the game’s most gracious winner and loser, Jack grabbed Tiger by both shoulders and told him how proud he was of his comeback from his surgeries, and how proud he was of the man and father he had become. “It’s just an honor to compete against you, Jack,” Tiger responded.
They looked into each other’s eyes for a few seconds, and perhaps immediately came to an unspoken understanding of how to handle all this GOAT talk going forward. Ted Williams used to refer to Joe DiMaggio as the greatest player he ever saw, and in turn DiMaggio would refer to Williams as the greatest hitter he ever saw. Maybe Jack could call Tiger the greatest golfer of all time, and Tiger could call Jack the greatest champion of all time.
Nicklaus did still own the advantage in major titles, 18-16, after all. But in the end, head-to-head at Augusta National, Woods proved his superiority. He shot 66. Jack shot 67.
On exit, with the sky darkening, Tiger wrapped an arm around his son Charlie, and Jack wrapped an arm around his son Jackie. They all understood the only score that truly mattered.
Two fathers. Two legends. Two winners. One unforgettable day of fantasy golf.
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