From the Golf Journal Archives - Nickless

May 14, 2010

Only too soon, golf faces a Grand Slam event without one major ingredient – Jack Nicklaus.

By Gordon S. White, Jr.

(Note: This article originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of Golf Journal.)

The end is near. Maybe next year, but perhaps as soon as next month, one of the longest and most successful record runs in any sport in the 20th century will come to a close.

A major championship will be played, and Jack Nicklaus will not walk to the first tee.

Last winter, Nicklaus acknowledged that his streak of major championships was close to its end. He has made similar rumblings before, yet continued to play. His record 40th consecutive U.S. Open, at Oakland Hills Country Club outside Detroit, will be his 138th consecutive major, a streak dating to a tie for 125th in the 1962 Masters. In fact, his presence has literally defined the 146 major championships he has played in his career. Tom Weiskopf said it best: “Jack Nicklaus is the record book.”

Nicklaus has entered, but has not committed fully to playing in, the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes next month. He is set to play in the PGA Championship in August at Valhalla Golf Club, a course he designed in Louisville. And there is the Masters next spring.

He can reach 150 career majors by qualifying for the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club. As his wife, Barbara, said, "150 is such a nicer sounding number than 149.” He can do that in a number of ways, such as winning the U.S. Senior Open this summer at Canterbury Golf Club.

Don’t bet against Nicklaus, the greatest golfer in the game’s history, doing just that. After all, he has astounded and thrilled us with his achievements for four decades. But maybe most of all, Nicklaus has pleased us by proving that golf still produces the finest and most honorable champions in a world of sports that seems to have gone a bit haywire with misbehavior and greed.

Since his early teens, Nicklaus has left a trail of wonderful memories for all who knew and watched him. It is simply a legacy of a wonderful man doing wonderful things.

Bill Campbell, a former USGA president and U.S. Amateur champion, said, “We are very fortunate the great winners in golf have been such fine people. Take Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, for starters. They are in the tradition of Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet.

“Jack has to be the greatest winner. But Jack was also the best loser in the game.”

Nicklaus was too strong physically and mentally for most of his competitors. “You could have the Long Beach State marching band there,” pro Phil Rodgers once said, “and Jack wouldn’t have any idea.”

Yet early in his career he was subject to occasional distractions, or at least he paid attention to the wrong thing at the wrong time. E. Harvie Ward, two-time U.S. Amateur champion, remembers giving him fits one day 38 years ago.

In the 1958 U.S. Amateur, played at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Ward’s uncanny scrambling around greens seemed to upset Nicklaus just enough so that Ward was able to win their second-round match, 1 up. Nicklaus played in six U.S. Amateurs, winning twice, and only that once did he lose as early as the second round.

“Jack played well that day,” Ward said. “I was struggling and missing greens left and right. But I was getting up and down from everywhere. I even got up and down from a hot dog stand once. I threw it in there 10 feet and sank the putt to win the hole from nowhere. I did this hole after hole. I remember he seemed totally unnerved by all the crap I was doing to him. He said much later that he learned an important lesson that day. He learned to stay focused on himself and not pay attention to the other guy’s game.

“Do you think maybe I helped him early?”

Twenty-seven years later, a nagging thought distracted Nicklaus, the mental giant of golf. It was planted in Nicklaus’s mind at Winged Foot during the 1984 U.S. Open when the writer of this piece was a sports reporter for The New York Times. Jack and I were talking as he relaxed after the second round. I mentioned how amazing it was that he had not missed the cut at a U.S. Open in 21 years. It was, of course, a record.

The next year Nicklaus missed the U.S. Open cut at Oakland Hills. Dave Anderson, The Times’ sports columnist, spoke to Nicklaus in the Oakland Hills locker room after he failed to make the cut at a U.S. Open for the first time since 1963.

Said Nicklaus to Anderson, “Gordon White reminded me last year about not missing the cut since 1963. I thought about that in the first round here at Oakland Hills yesterday and I thought about it during the second round today.. . . Damn you, Gordon White!”

But usually Jack’s mind was a weapon against his competitors and distractions were rare. Campbell said, “Of all his talents, his mind is his greatest strength. They write about Ben Hogan’s secret weapon as his lade or his grip or his swing. But Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus have the same secret weapon. I believe it is their minds, their thinking.”

Yet Nicklaus came upon the golf scene in the 1950s as a rare explosion of teenage power. You could see that in the length of shots. Few people knew that down the road his mental gymnastics would scare as many as he frightened with his raw power.

Ward Wettlaufer, a fine amateur golfer who became a close friend to Nicklaus, said, “When you’re young, you don’t pay attention to a man’s thinking out there when you’re playing with him. But now, when I am asked what is the best part of Jack’s game, I always say it is his head.”

Wettlaufer and Ward were on the 1959 Walker Cup Team with Nicklaus, Deane Beman, Charlie Coe, Billy Joe Patton, Tommy Aaron and others. Ward, according to Campbell, was the unofficial “court jester.” Ward gave each team member a nickname. Nicklaus was Snow White because of his blond hair. Wettlaufer, who was a long hitter like Nicklaus, was Baby Fats.

Beman, who won the 1960 and 1963 U.S. Amateur titles, remembers how some British folks surrendered by just watching Nicklaus hit practice shots before that match at Muirfield Links in Scotland.

Some British golf writers were hanging around when Wettlaufer and Nicklaus nearly drove the par-4 third hole. The writers said, “There goes another Walker Cup down the drain.” And they went back to the clubhouse to drown their sorrows.

In Nicklaus’s first Walker Cup, he was teamed with Wettlaufer in a 36-hole foursomes match against Michael Lunt and Alec Shepperson. Snow White and Baby Fats were 1 down after 18 holes. But in the afternoon, Nicklaus drove to just off the front of Muirfield’s second hole, about 360 yards, and the hole was theirs. This crashing drive carried the two big pot bunkers that flank the entrance to the green 330 yards from the tee.

“When you pull a tee shot like that they begin to wilt,” Wettlaufer said. “We had it then and won, 2 and 1.” As expected, the U.S. won the Walker Cup, 9-3.

Just a year later Wettlaufer served as an usher when Jack and Barbara were married, July 23, 1960.

“Four of us played at Scioto Country Club that morning before the afternoon wedding,” Wettlaufer remembers. “When we got to the 18th tee, Jack said that since this was to be his last drive as a single man he was going to let it all out and really kill it. Like so many who try too hard to crash a tee shot, he topped the ball and it just went about 40 yards. We all laughed and I’ll bet he never hit such a bad drive since.”

Barbara said she chose that Saturday for the wedding “because it was the weekend of the PGA Championship, the only tournament Jack couldn’t enter that summer.” He was still an amateur golfer trying to make a living in the insurance business.

Nicklaus did not turn professional for another year and a half but had no idea what financial success was to be his. Nicklaus’s first victory as a professional came at the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont. He earned the $15,000 first prize, still a far cry from being the multimillionaire he later became.

Barbara Nicklaus told of their dreams and plans by saying, “My father was a school teacher and Jack’s father was a druggist. We were both in college when we married and Jackie came along before Jack turned professional in 1962. He was working in insurance and we just hoped to live the modest middle-class life our parents had lived.”

No one else saw such money and business opportunities in golf 30 plus years ago. Arnold Palmer was the popular hero of the game then and even he did not foresee what financial rewards he and Nicklaus and others were to achieve within a few years.

Some, including Jack, may have expected his success in competition. But who then was to know Nicklaus would become a one-man conglomerate through course construction, equipment manufacturing, et al? But that is Golden Bear International for you.

Al Wester, long the radio voice of the PGA Tour on the Mutual Network, remembered working with Nicklaus in those early days.

“After he won the U.S. Open in ‘62, Mutual signed him to a contract to do a 10-minute broadcast with me before and after each round of 13 tournaments in 1963,” Wester recounted. “That's 20 minutes each of four days for 13 weeks because he made the cut at each tournament. Jack was paid $1,000 a week or $13,000 for this whole thing.

“About halfway through those 13 events, Jack told me how delighted he was to be doing the broadcasts. He said he and Barbara needed the money. Nowadays if he did anything like that he'd probably be getting $1,000 a minute, not a week.”

Pandel Savac, one of Nicklaus’s closest friends from Columbus, remembers those days when Jack and Barbara moved into a house next door to him on Elmwood Avenue in Upper Arlington.

“None of us had much money then,” Savac said. “Jack took me to the old American pro-am in Cincinnati in 1962. We took our wives and had a good time. We shot 63 and won. Jack took care of the hotel and had money left over from the winnings. Then a week later he went hunting and came over to the house with a bag of pheasants. After Jack left, I pulled the birds out of the bag and down there at the bottom of the bag there were three $100 bills Jack left for me. Jack’s like that.”

Savac said that superstition, more than lack of money, caused Jack to wear the same pair of pants each of the five days it took him to win the 1962 Open at Oakmont. Nicklaus won that Open, his first triumph as a pro, by beating Palmer in an 18-hole playoff. “Jack isn’t really superstitious. But he wouldn’t wear any other pants. He finally beat Palmer by three shots in the playoff. Barbara said those pants were really ripe by then.”

Campbell, who was a competitor in that U.S. Open at Oakmont, recalls that week for another reason. Nicklaus, he said, became the first player to use a yardage book at a U.S. Open.

But a fine amateur golfer, Gene Andrews, was responsible for developing yardage books, according to Campbell. Andrews, the 1954 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion and a Walker Cup teammate of Nicklaus, got the idea in the late ‘50s.

“I remember when Jack walked the last fairway at Oakmont on Sunday as he and Palmer tied,” Campbell recalls. “The television announcer said, ‘Nicklaus is coming up the 18th fairway looking intently at his scorecard.’ It wasn’t his scorecard. It was that new thing, a yardage book that is so familiar now.”

Early in 1962, before Oakmont, Nicklaus impressed even the battle-hardened tour veterans with his power. He was paired with Jim Ferree in the opening round of an early tour event. Jay and Lionel Hebert, brothers and veterans of the tour, wanted to know if Nicklaus’s press clippings were valid. So they asked Ferree to “take a good look at the fat kid and tell us what you see.”

Ferree, who could tag a long drive, dutifully reported back: “I strung it out there and the kid skied it every time. He popped it up. But he was 40 or 50 yards beyond me every time.”

Nicklaus has won so many tournaments, including the record 20 majors, that even he might not be able to name a favorite victory.

His achievements at the Masters may never be equaled. Jack’s Masters exploits became spring magic over the years. The 1986 victory was possibly the best because it came at age 46. With it he set a record of six triumphs at Augusta and notched his 20th major triumph, another record.

Barbara Nicklaus said she felt the ‘86 Masters was probably her favorite Masters “because Jackie was with Jack.” The eldest of their four boys caddied for his father that week. They walked off the 18th green together with Nicklaus the leader in the clubhouse but not yet assured of victory. Greg Norman still had to finish and still had a chance to tie or win. He didn’t do either.

“Everyone asked me if I saw Jack and Jackie on the 18th green,” Barbara said. “I never see the 18th green at Augusta because there’s such a huge crowd around the green and I’m always coming up the steep hill. I can’t get close and so I’m down the hill when they finish on 18.”

Nicklaus’s 1975 Masters victory was a classic as he warded off the strong challenges of Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller. Weiskopf, destined forever to be runner-up to Nicklaus at Augusta, kept trying. Each time he birdied to bring on a big roar, Nicklaus’s caddie, Angelo Argea, said to his boss, “Answer him.” And Nicklaus did. He beat his two rivals by a shot.

Barbara’s favorite annual golf trip, the one to the British Open, created great memories for her. Maybe the best was Jack’s first British Open victory in 1966 at Muirfield.

“He won on a course where he wasn’t supposed to win,” Barbara said. “That had to be satisfying. But Jack always said that if he was to be remembered like Bobby Jones he had to win at St Andrews. So maybe those were the best British Opens for him.”

Nicklaus won the British Open at St Andrews twice, in ‘70 and ‘76. But it was the name of Muirfield he used for his own course and not St. Andrews. He helped win a Walker Cup at Muirfield and won a British Open at Muirfield.

His special course, Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, began taking shape early in Jack’s pro career, even before he knew he might become the wealthy owner of a huge business and before he established himself as perhaps the greatest golfer of all time. He needed friends to get this idea of Muirfield Village and the Memorial Tournament off the drawing board. Without these close friends it never would have happened.

Savac and Ivor Young were part of Jack’s inner circle. These were Ohio State men, like Jack, who is fiercely loyal to his good friends.

Young, an attorney and real estate broker, is the man who searched for the land for Muirfield Village Golf Club. The dream came to fruition in 1973 with the completion of the course just northeast of Columbus. Savac now directs the Memorial Tournament, a prime fixture on the PGA Tour.

Loyal to a fault, Nicklaus is also very kind to new acquaintances. Yet he does not suffer fools gladly even though he tries his best not to react. He never scorns anyone. His patience on the course seems to carry over to his relationships with those who might bother less tolerant celebrities.

Kaye Kessler, the former sports columnist and golf writer at the Columbus Dispatch, was at the 1983 Masters when Jack was forced to withdraw because of his ailing back. Nicklaus went to the first tee for the second round, but could not swing without pain that brought him to his knees.

Taken to the small Champions Room at Augusta National, Nicklaus was stretched out on a table. A doctor and trainer were working on him when Kessler arrived as the pool reporter for the 200 or so newspaper writers.

Kessler recalls, “I couldn’t believe it when everybody’s favorite TV golf announcer walked in to learn Jack was forced out of the Masters because of his injured back. He said, ‘You’re Jack Nicklaus. Surely they will let you have a later tee time if your back gets better today.’

“Jack is so great,” Kessler want on. “He just chuckled and said, ‘You must be kidding.’ There was no sarcastic tone. Just Jack being Jack — reacting kindly to even that sort of thing.”

Nicklaus was always one of the most gracious and interesting winners in sports. Somewhat quieter in his amateur and early professional years, he became very talkative and public relations conscious by the mid-1960s. He was then challenging the King, Palmer, whose charisma helped him charm the socks off the golf world.

One of Nicklaus’s most memorable press conferences took place at Baltusrol after his record-tying fourth U.S. Open victory. Jack held forth in the press interview tent for about four hours, until well after 10 p.m. Reporters who had to make Monday morning editions would leave and write, then return to hear more.

Barbara Nicklaus and their 6-year-old son, Michael, waited and waited and waited. After all, they were looking forward to another glorious celebration that always goes with a major victory.

“What a celebration!” Barbara joked. “We had our victory dinner at McDonald’s on the way to Newark Airport just before midnight.”

Bob Green, who retired last winter after four decades as the golf writer for the Associated Press, covered more PGA Tour events than any writer in the history of the circuit. He sat in on most of that lengthy Nicklaus press conference at Baltusrol. “Jack Nicklaus was not just the best winning interview,” Green said. “He was the best losing interview there ever was.”

Green also feels Nicklaus could do just fine against today’s PGA Tour competition if it was a young Jack Nicklaus coming on the scene in the 1990s. Frank Hannigan, a former executive director of the USGA, agrees.

“What I found was that Nicklaus’s driving average in 1968 was 275 yards," Hannigan said. “Only 10 players were longer on the 1995 tour. Nicklaus was using his wooden McGregor clubs in those days.

“I also discovered that Nicklaus led the PGA Tour in the critical category of greens in regulation in 1968, hitting 75.6 percent of his greens in regulation. The tour has not recorded one player in the intervening three decades as hitting as many greens in regulation as Nicklaus did in 1968 – a normal year for him.”

Although his power is always mentioned as one of his prime assets, once in a while even Nicklaus’s power was kept in check. And he didn’t always enjoy holding back.

Green remembers Nicklaus almost being embarrassed at hitting an iron off the last tee at the 1967 Open at Baltusrol.

“Nicklaus went to the 72nd hole with a comfortable lead over Arnold Palmer,” Green recalls. “Instead of using a driver that might get him into trouble left, right or in a hazard crossing the par-5 fairway, Nicklaus used a 2-iron.

“Shortly after he accepted the winner’s trophy he took me aside and whispered, ‘I was standing on the last hole of an Open I knew I would win and I was standing there with an iron in my hand. I felt like a fool.’ "

Dick Grimm, the commissioner of the Canadian PGA Tour and a longtime friend of Nicklaus, said, “He always seems to do the right thing. I don’t think I ever met a man who has as strong a positive attitude as Jack does or who has the observation qualities he has.”

But not even Nicklaus himself could have envisioned his often-storied accomplishments in 150 major championships – and then some.

Between lessons from his father and Scioto head pro Jack Grout, Nicklaus was able to begin his collection of silverware at a young age. (USGA Museum)

He had so many victories even he might not be able to name a favorite. (USGA Museum)

Nicklaus charmed America’s press after he held off Isao Aoki and won the 1980 Open at Baltusrol. (USGA Museum)