Gary Nicklaus has an opportunity to take care of some unfinished business this week at the 112th U.S. Amateur Championship at Cherry Hills Country Club in suburban Denver.
Nicklaus has competed in the U.S. Amateur six previous times. It should have been seven. But the last time Cherry Hills hosted the championship, in 1990, his heart just wasn’t in it – not that it was his fault.
Shortly after arriving in Colorado, Nicklaus, a standout at Ohio State University at the time, fell seriously ill and was hospitalized.
He ended up spending a week in intensive care battling pericarditis, an inflammation of the pericardial sac around the heart, a condition usually caused by a virus.
“It feels good to get another shot at it, maybe get a little revenge,” said Nicklaus, who opened the championship on Monday with a round of 1-over-par 71 at CommonGround Golf Course, the companion course for the championship. He plays Cherry Hills on Tuesday morning.
Son of golf great and 18-time professional major champion Jack Nicklaus, who also owns two U.S. Amateur victories in 1959 and ’61, Gary Nicklaus has traveled a circuitous route back to the championship. His last appearance is a distant 21 years ago when he lost in the first round of match play in 1991 at The Honors Course in the Chattanooga, Tenn., suburb of Ooltewah.
A professional career beckoned in 1994, and he eventually played three years on the PGA Tour, from 2000-02. His career-best finish was second place at the 2000 BellSouth Classic, where he lost to Phil Mickelson on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff. (Coincidentally, Mickelson won that 1990 Amateur at Cherry Hills)
Nicklaus spent his last pro season in 2003 primarily on the developmental circuit now known as the Web.com Tour, and he finished with $693,571 in career earnings. Though he soon turned his attention to the Nicklaus Companies, where he serves as vice chairman, the fourth of Jack and Barbara Nicklaus’ five children still harbored a passion for competitive golf.
That hunger compelled Gary to seek amateur reinstatement, which was granted in 2007.
“When I first got my amateur status back, I was excited about playing a little bit,” Nicklaus said. “I played in a couple of local events, and I did well. I have a family, I have a job, so it’s hard to go out and practice as much as you should if you want to be good. There are other choices you have to make. This is my first tournament on a national stage in over 10 years, so it’s a different mindset. It’s a little more exciting. Nothing against our county amateur, but the U.S. Amateur is a different deal.”
Nicklaus, who shot 72-73-145 at The Wanderers Club in Wellington, Fla., to qualify for the 312-player Amateur field, believes he is a different player than the youngster who won the Porter Cup at Niagara Falls Country Club in 1991 and then embarked on a pro career that took him to the best tour in the world.
“I’m probably way more prepared for this,” the 43-year-old Nicklaus said. “If I knew then what I know now about playing golf and how to score and how to better use my time, [my pro career] would have been a lot different.
“I think I’m a better player than I was when I was on the PGA Tour. I drive the ball better. I’m still a good iron player. I think my wedge game was a little sharper back then, but my putting is probably better than when I was on Tour. I wasn’t very good then, but I make my fair share now. I don’t think about anything except hit the ball in the hole.”
Gary is coming off a second-place finish two weeks ago in the Palm Beach Kennel Club County Amateur—where he left a 35-foot tying birdie putt on the lip of the final hole. Nicklaus hasn’t given much thought to the coincidence of returning to Cherry Hills, where his personal history extends to his famous father; Jack, then just a 20-year-old Ohio State student, almost won the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, losing to Arnold Palmer in the best post-World War II performance by an amateur. Jack did return in 1993 to win the U.S. Senior Open, the last of his eight USGA titles.
What Gary does think about is winning, which is the point of any endeavor if your name is Nicklaus. And it won’t be his only shot this year in a USGA event; the day after his runner-up finish in the County Amateur, he successfully qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur in sectional qualifying at Quail Ridge Country Club in Boynton Beach, Fla. He shot even par-72 with the aid of a seasoned caddie, his father.
“I dragged him out of retirement,” Gary said, laughing.
But before the Mid-Am, which begins Sept. 8 at Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest, Ill., Nicklaus has his “comeback” at Cherry Hills.
“I wouldn’t be playing if that (winning) wasn’t what I was trying to do,” said Nicklaus, who reeled off four consecutive birdies mid-round after a rocky four-over-par start. “I know it’s a great field. It’s the U.S. Amateur, the biggest amateur event in the world, but I also know I’m good enough. And I’ve been working on my game, so my expectation is to play two solid rounds, get into match play and go one hole at a time. We’ll see where that takes me.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites. He also is the author of “Golden Twilight,” a book that chronicles Jack Nicklaus’ final tour of all four major championships in 2000.