Museum Moment: The 1961 U.S. Amateur Championship

Apr 22, 2010

By Robert Alvarez, USGA

The year 1961 marked the fifth USGA championship at the Pebble Beach Golf Links, and Jack Nicklaus surfed into the Monterey Peninsula on a wave of momentum.

Just 21, Nicklaus had captured his first U.S. Amateur Championship in 1959, had put on an outstanding performance at the 1960 World Amateur Team Championship, and had finished runner-up at the 1960 U.S. Open Championship at Cherry Hills in Colorado.

Nicklaus played seven matches during the 1961 U.S. Amateur Championship, for a total of 138 holes in 20 under par, including 34 birdies and two eagles. He enjoyed a first-round bye, then went on to defeat Donald Krieger 4 and 3, William Edwards 5 and 4, Dave Smith 2 and 1, John Humm 3 and 1, Samuel Carmichael 4 and 3, and Marion Methvin 9 and 8, before besting H. Dudley Wysong, a student of Byron Nelson’s, 8 and 6 in the final match. Golf World magazine reported in its September 22, 1961 edition that Nicklaus routinely drove the ball over 300 yards.

In a letter from the USGA Museum’s Research Center archives, Michael Bonallack mentions that he had played a practice round with Nicklaus and Deane Beman, and Beman had pointed out that Nicklaus had an unfair advantage because of the enormous distance he hit the ball.

Nicklaus knew that he held an advantage over his opponents, telling the field at the 1961 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at the Cornell University Golf Course in Ithaca, N.Y., that “The key to success on many golf holes is to play one difficult shot well. Often you have a choice of gambling on the drive and playing an easy shot to the green, or vice versa. The player who best assesses his own capabilities before deciding which shot he will make the ‘most difficult’ will be the winner.”

In addition to his length off the tee, Nicklaus would acquire a valuable skill from fellow competitor Beman during his practice rounds at Pebble Beach. Confused by the blustery winds and firm greens, Nicklaus turned to Beman for advice. Beman taught Nicklaus to pace off distances on short approach shots to the green, rather than estimating distances, a strategy that would ultimately produce more birdies than hitting 300-yard tee shots.

In the 1961 Amateur, Nicklaus entered what has since been termed “The Zone,” a state in which an athlete blocks out all distractions and reaches an almost Zen-like state of concentration. Nicklaus felt that in addition to displaying his finest match-play skills, his ball striking was nearly perfect. In his 1997 autobiography he says that he was “Never stronger physically – during that year I had nine times smashed the fiber face insert of my driver. The club stayed intact that week, but I hit the ball with it consistently between 280 and 300 yards, and mostly to the preferred areas of the fairways.”

Three years after winning his second Amateur Championship, Nicklaus donated the MacGregor driver he used at Pebble Beach to the USGA Museum’s Clubs of Champions collection. Along with the club came a letter saying, “I used this driver throughout the tournament and, not long after the tournament ended, the driver just plain wore out from too much use, as you can see by the state it’s in now. The driver served me well through the year of 1961 when I won several tournaments and finished by winning the National Amateur.”

Shortly after winning the 1961 U.S. Amateur Championship, and the birth of his first son, Nicklaus began to turn his thoughts toward becoming a professional. He met with Mark McCormack, a Cleveland lawyer who had managed Gary Player and Arnold Palmer, to discuss the benefits of becoming a professional.

Word leaked to the press that Nicklaus had intended to turn professional as he prepared to compete in the Americas Cup in Monterey City, Mexico. Concerned that he might have violated USGA Rules, Nicklaus confided in USGA Executive Director Joseph Dey and was told that he had not broken any rules.

Nicklaus relished being an amateur. In a 1969 biography co-written by Herbert Warren Wind, Nicklaus mentions how much he enjoyed being called “the greatest amateur since Bobby Jones.” However, Nicklaus knew that by becoming a professional he could not match Jones’ incredible amateur record in the major championships.

Though Nicklaus had a passion for amateur golf, he sent a letter to the USGA in November of 1961 declaring his intention to become a professional, and so began his run as one of the greatest champions of all time.

Robert Alvarez is the Collections Manager of the USGA Museum. E-mail him with questions or comments at RAlvarez@usga.org.

Three years after winning his second Amateur Championship, Nicklaus donated the MacGregor driver he used at Pebble Beach to the USGA Museum’s Clubs of Champions collection. (USGA Museum)


Along with the club came a letter saying, “I used this driver throughout the tournament and, not long after the tournament ended, the driver just plain wore out from too much use, as you can see by the state it’s in now. The driver served me well through the year of 1961 when I won several tournaments and finished by winning the National Amateur.” (USGA Museum)