1986—The Old Guys Win

Phil Mickelson’s 2021 PGA Championship win 23 days shy of his 51st birthday made Lefty the oldest player to ever win a major championship and it brings to mind when two “old guys” beat younger fields in the majors. In 1986 at 46 Jack Nicklaus won the Masters for his 18th major and another “seasoned citizen,” 43-year-old Raymond Floyd triumphed in the US Open.

It was a long time ago and a couple of reminders of how it was are in order.

President Ronald Reagan led the nation in mourning for the astronauts who perished when the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after liftoff and Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary of the USSR as his country struggled to contain the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion.

Many of us viewed Halley’s Comet as it looped around the sun, watched the number one box office movie Top Gun and listened to Dionne Warwick and Lionel Richie. A gallon of gas was $0.86, the Dow Jones Industrial Index closed the year at 1,895.95 and a new Toyota Camry was $11,000.

In golf, technology had remained static for decades: wound balata-covered golf balls, persimmon headed woods and, except for Ping Eye 2s, thin-bladed hard-to-hit irons. However, in 1986 the end of an era was approaching. True, we had to wait another 14 years until Titleist introduced the game-changing Pro V1 and Ely Callaway was five years away from producing the Big Bertha driver that soon relegated persimmon drivers to the garage. Graphite shafts had been invented in 1969 by Frank Thomas at Shakespeare Sporting Goods Co. (later Senior Technical Director of the USGA), but in 1986 widespread use was a decade in the future.

This level of technology was reflected in the PGA Tour’s 1986 driving distance stats with the average being 261.1 yards compared to the present 296.0. The big hitter was Davis Love III averaging 285.7 yards versus Bryson DeChambeau today at 323.5 yards.

Entering the 1986 Masters Jack Nicklaus had not won a major since the 1980 PGA Championship and had been without a regular Tour win since 1984. The story of his Masters come from behind victory is well known making up four shots on Saturday’s leader Greg Norman scoring 30 on Sunday’s inward nine with an eagle, birdie, birdie finish.

Perhaps not as well remembered was the putter Nicklaus used for his historic 18th major the Response ZT. Designed by MacGregor Golf’s Clay Long it was very lightweight having an immense aluminum head which helped Nicklaus on Augusta National’s speedy greens. MacGregor had planned a modest run of a few thousand ZTs but wound up selling over 300,000 as it seemed like everyone had to have one.

The 1986 Masters was the Golden Bear’s final win on the PGA Tour.

The US Open at Shinnecock Hills saw another come-from-behind victory for an over-40 player. Raymond Floyd made up a three-shot deficit on the third-round leader Greg Norman posting a spectacular 66 on Sunday to win by two strokes over Lanny Wadkins and Chip Beck. Norman after a final round of 75 was six behind Floyd.

The Aussie did have three wins in 1986 including the British Open and Norman also led after three rounds of the 1986 PGA Championship but a fourth round 76 allowed a hard charging Bob Tway to win. Though he missed out in three majors Norman did take the PGA Tour money title with $653, 296 and finished the year the number one ranked player in the world.

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