Steve DiMeglio, USA TODAY Sports
Jack Nicklaus didn't need much time to figure out how best to play Augusta National. Under that blond mop of hair, you see, is one of the greatest minds golf has ever known, and Nicklaus needed just two rounds to realize if he were to ever don a green jacket, he had to decipher one important feature on the rolling hills that are home to the Masters.
Actually, 18 features.
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"I loved the course right from the start," Nicklaus said of his initial visit in 1959 to golf's first annual major championship. At 19, he had received his invitation for that year's tournament by being on the Walker Cup team. But in his first two strolls around Augusta National, Nicklaus carded rounds of 75-74 to miss the cut. "I played very well that year. I hit 31 greens in regulation, and I had eight three-putts. I noticed Arnold (Palmer) was leading the tournament, and he had hit 19 greens in regulation.
"So I went, 'Whoops. I better learn how to putt these greens.' "
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He figured it out.
This year, on April 7, marks the 50th anniversary of Nicklaus' first of a record six Masters titles, a one-shot victory against Tony Lema in 1963. Nicklaus added titles in 1965, 1966, 1972, 1975, and, of course, his magical victory in 1986 at 46.
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Nicklaus, who took questions about the 1963 victory in a conference call this year, didn't remember much of what happened that week a half century ago. But he did recall key moments and figures, one which saw Gene Sarazen make the cut for the final time, and 50-year-old Sam Snead, Gary Player, Julius Boros and Lema make serious runs at the green jacket. But on the back nine on Sunday, 23-year-old Nicklaus delivered key birdies on holes 13 and 16 and held on for the win to become the youngest winner of the Masters.
"Being my first Masters win, it was very, very special," Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus' arrival as one of the game's best players occurred the previous year, when he beat Palmer in an 18-hole playoff to win the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club in Palmer's western Pennsylvania backyard. Nicklaus' victory in the Masters further cemented the growing fear among his colleagues that this Golden Bear was going to be tough to handle at Augusta National and everywhere else.
"I've always had a love affair with Augusta National," he said. "My potential to win more was there. To finish with six green jackets was great. Probably could have won more. Probably could have won less. But it's a pretty good record. It was a good course for me."
Nicklaus, who had 22 top-10s in the Masters, including 10 in a row starting in 1970, tied for 13th and was the low amateur in 1960, his second Masters. In 1961, he tied for seventh.
A hip injury early in 1962 paved the way for his first title and a green jacket, size 44 regular.
"I was forced to learn how to play right to left to take pressure off the hip," Nicklaus said. "It was probably the best thing to happen to me for the Masters. I found some of the corners you had to hit around to have the best chance to play those holes."
Nicklaus opened with a so-so 74 in 1963 but leaped into contention with a bogey-free 66 in the second round. In miserable weather the next day, when steady rain made it nearly impossible to find a dry place to drop a ball out of casual water, Nicklaus grabbed the 54-hole lead with a 74.
"I persevered in the third round," Nicklaus said. "Perseverance and patience was so important that week. To win there at age 23 was something I was very proud of."
Starting with a one-shot lead on the final day, Nicklaus went out in 37. A key for him, he said, was the bogey he made at 12. He found the front, wet bunker with a 7-iron, blasted out over the green and chipped to 8 feet. He salvaged a bogey by making the putt, and he said the burst of confidence from the putt took him home.
Although he had dropped two strokes out of the lead, Nicklaus made birdie at 13 and faced a 12-footer for birdie at 16. By this time, Player had bogeyed his final two holes to fall back and Snead had three-putted the 16th and added another bogey at 18 to drop out of the lead.
"I remember on 16, I had a 12-footer, with the pin top right, a little left-to-right putt," Nicklaus said. "Outside of that, I don't remember much."
He remembers the putt on 16 going in. And despite a three-putt bogey on the final hole, Nicklaus won the title.
He also received a check for $20,000.