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Wednesday April 4, 2012 25 Years ago: UF coach Buddy Alexander paired with Jack Nicklaus at the Masters

Updated: 9:21pm, April 4

Buddy Alexander 1986 amateur championGAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Just for a moment, picture yourself standing on the first tee at Augusta National and being moments away from playing the opening round of the Masters while paired with the defending champion.

Oh, and that champion is Jack Nicklaus.

Florida men’s golf coach Buddy Alexander doesn’t have to imagine the scenario. He lived it nearly 25 years ago.

“Needless to say, I was a little nervous,” Alexander recalled Wednesday.  

Rewind a quarter-century. As the reigning U.S. Amateur champion (photo left, with his father and trophy), Alexander automatically qualified to play in the 51st Masters. And as tradition had it at Augusta, the amateur champ was paired in Round 1 with the defending Masters champ. In this case, that was Nicklaus, who a year earlier made that historic and chilling charge (photo below right) on the back nine -- shooting a 30 -- to become the oldest winner (46) in Masters history.

Alexander got a chance to relive some of those memories this week as one of 27 players to receive an honorary invitation to return to the club and play practice rounds, compete in the Par-3 contest and use the tournament facilities before the 2012 tournament officially begins Thursday.

Not long after leaving Butler Cabin and the azaleas behind, Alexander called on his cell phone and reflected on that memorable round -- the day April 9, 1987 -- with the “Golden Bear.”

It should come as no surprise that Nicklaus was the consummate professional in his dealings with Alexander, then 34 and coaching the men’s team at LSU. Jack

“It was almost as if he went out of his way to make me feel at ease,” said Alexander, who had won his amateur title the summer before at Shoal Creek outside Birmingham, Ala. “I had recruited his son at LSU, so I knew him a little bit and that helped. But he really could not have been any nicer; as encouraging and gracious as you could possibly imagine.”

Still, when the two stepped to the tee box at No. 1, all the class Nicklaus exuded didn’t ease the butterflies churning in Alexander’s belly. Nicklaus, though, had honors and was first to hit.

“I was too nervous to watch,” Alexander said.

As Nicklaus struck the ball, the perfunctory cheers roared out, but quickly turned to “oohs” and “aahs” as the ball hooked into the woods on the left.

Alexander stepped up and promptly piped his drive straight down the fairway.

“About as good as I could hit it,” he said.

As he and Nicklaus strolled out on their round, the man with the 18 major championships turned to his amateur partner.

“This is my 27th Masters and that is the worst shot I’ve ever hit off this tee,” Nicklaus said. Alexander now

Alexander smiled.

“Well, I know I can be a little intimidating to play with,” he said, “but I think you’ll be OK after a few holes.”

Nicklaus laughed.

And away they went.

Alexander shot 76 that day. He carded another 76 in the second round while playing with Scott Verplank, and missed the cut by one stroke. Nicklaus finished in a tie for seventh in the tournament won when Larry Mize famously holed out a chip shot on the second hole of sudden death to defeat Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros (YouTube video below).

U.S. Amateur champs receive honorary invites to the Masters each year, so Alexander has returned to Augusta many times since that special stroll 25 years ago. He’s played practice rounds with former Gator standouts/pupils Dudley Hart, Chris DiMarco, Brian Gay and Camilio Villegas.

This weekend, Alexander (pictured lower right) will be in Tampa with his 24th-ranked UF team at the Gary Koch Invitational at Old Memorial. Chances are, however, he’ll have an eye on what’s going on at Augusta; and maybe allow his mind wander back to that special day in 1987.

Happy Silver Anniversary, Coach.

“It was a lifelong goal of mine to play in the Masters,” said Alexander, now 59. “And it’s an honor to go back there every year.”

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