By Associated Press
NORTH PALM BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods went to sleep wearing his green jacket after a record-smashing performance made him the youngest Masters champion ever.
From Tommy Aaron to Fuzzy Zoeller, only a select group of players have owned one — not just any green jacket, but the most coveted prize in golf that comes with winning the most exclusive major championship.
Until two years ago, Jack Nicklaus wasn’t on that list.
How could that be?
No one has written more history at historic Augusta National than Nicklaus, a six-time winner who has become as synonymous with the Masters as the green jacket itself. He was even honored with a monument in 1998, the 40th anniversary of his first appearance.
Oddly, it was at that ceremony when Nicklaus first wore an Augusta National green jacket he could finally call his own.
“Everybody talks about the green jacket,” Nicklaus said. “I never owned one until 1998.”
Nicklaus says he has told the story many times. He wasn’t about to repeat it until he saw the attentive faces of a small group of reporters huddled around him on the patio of his south Florida home this week.
What followed was one of the most fascinating stories to come forth regarding the hallowed grounds of Augusta National.
Nicklaus was a chubby 23-year-old when he won his first Masters in 1963. Augusta tradition allows for the previous year’s winner — Arnold Palmer, in this case — to drape the green jacket on the shoulders of the new champion.
Club officials keep several jackets handy for the presentation, and they brought out a size 46 long for Nicklaus.
“They thought I was so big,” Nicklaus said. “It was like an overcoat. It just hung on me.”
The jacket was only for show. Defending champions have their own coat waiting for them upon their return. For whatever reason, a green jacket with a “Nicklaus” name tag stitched inside wasn’t in his locker in 1964.
Not to worry. Nicklaus borrowed one from Augusta member Thomas Dewey, the former New York governor of the famous headline, “Dewey defeats Truman.”
Nicklaus won again in 1965 and 1966. Still no jacket. He continued to wear Dewey’s coat for the Champions Dinner on Wednesday before the tournament, not wanting to make a fuss.
“They never said anything,” Nicklaus said. “And I wasn’t going to say anything.”
Dewey’s jacket finally wore out about the time Nicklaus won his record-tying fourth Masters in 1972. This time, he took matters into his own hands. Since Nicklaus had an endorsement deal with Hart, Schaffner and Marx, he asked the Cincinnati-based clothier to make him a green jacket.
“It wasn’t even the same material or the right color,” he said.
No one noticed.
That jacket lasted a short time past his fifth victory in 1975, and Nicklaus was back to borrowing a green jacket every year from Augusta National members — and not letting on about the oversight.
Eleven years later, the 46-year-old Nicklaus won the Masters again, but still had not one green jacket to show for any of his six titles.
Nicklaus enjoyed the story and shared it among friends. But he never told anyone from Augusta National until 1997 when he dropped it on then-chairman Jackson Stephens, a pokerfaced oilman from Arkansas rarely ruffled by anything.
“I told him, ‘I’ve won this tournament six times and I’ve never been given a green jacket,’ ” Nicklaus said. “I don’t own a green jacket.”
Ridiculous, replied Stephens, who ordered him to the pro shop to be measured for a green jacket immediately.
“I said, ‘Jack, it’s such a great story, I don’t want to ruin it,’ ” Nicklaus recalled with a chuckle.
Alas, not even the great Nicklaus has the final word at Augusta.
When he returned in 1998, he found a note in his locker from Stephens, who had scheduled an appointment with the tailor for Nicklaus. Nicklaus gave in and was measured for a 44 regular — his first green jacket, 35 years late.
It will hang from his locker in the Champions Room when Nicklaus returns in April. Perhaps he can pull off another miracle and win his seventh Masters, in which case Jose Maria Olazabal would help him put on the green jacket.
His own green jacket.