CHAMPIONS
Love Story: Jack Nicklaus and Scioto Country Club August 10, 2016 | Columbus, Ohio By David Shedloski

Jack Nicklaus calls his father, Charlie, his best friend. Charlie was instrumental in getting his son into golf at Scioto Country Club. (USGA Archives)

When the United States Golf Association announced in 2012 that it was bringing the 37th U.S. Senior Open to Scioto Country Club as a gesture of recognition for its centennial anniversary, Jack Nicklaus, the club’s most renowned member, wrestled with feelings of undeniable pride and irrepressible envy.

“Scioto’s reputation for hosting championships is fairly strong, even though they’ve been spread out through the years, meaning it never really had the chance to build up any momentum in regards to people getting to know how special it is,” said Nicklaus, who was introduced at the press conference as the championship’s honorary chairman. “I’m very happy that they now will get that chance.”

But Scioto’s prodigal son couldn’t help but muse about the club’s long absence from the championship slate. Scioto had hosted the 1986 U.S. Senior Open. Nicklaus, 46 years old at the time, was not yet eligible – and was thought to be not much of a threat on the PGA Tour as he competed sporadically. Then he won his sixth Masters and 18th major title with an inspirational charge over the final nine holes at Augusta National Golf Club. It was historic stuff, and this year’s 30th anniversary of that monumental triumph was again a staple of television, print and digital media remembrances and sendups.

But those 30 years also represent a missed opportunity for the Golden Bear to relish a home game. Nicklaus played for 19 more years before ending his career in the 2005 Open Championship at the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland. So a ceremonial figurehead is the only role Jack will fulfill this week.

That is not his preference, though.

“I just have to get my game in shape for it,” Nicklaus chirped, smiling mischievously. Then he turned serious. “The only thing I’m upset about, through all the years, [is] that I never had the opportunity to play here [in a championship].”

True enough, but how many times did a young Jackie Nicklaus – some newspapers were still calling him Jackie as late as 1963 when he’d already won three legs of the career grand slam – play a championship in his head while hammering around and honing his game on the revered Donald Ross layout? Or, perhaps, more appropriately, how often did he play a round at Scioto like he was playing in a championship? Given the Golden Bear’s legendary competitiveness, and his virulent distaste for casual golf, most likely there weren’t more than a handful of these – if any at all – once he became proficient at the game, which didn’t take long.

When Bob Jones won the 1926 U.S. Open at Scioto Country Club, he made a new fan in 13-year-old Charlie Nicklaus. (USGA Archives)

“Oh, that’s probably somewhat of a fair point,” he said. “I grew up listening to my father and other club members talk about watching Bobby Jones win the 1926 U.S. Open at Scioto. And while playing, one of them might say, ‘I saw Jones hit it here; Jones made a putt there.’ Bobby Jones was my father’s idol, and that’s how he became my idol. I think all young golfers do that to some degree – ‘I have to make this putt to beat Bobby Jones or Ben Hogan … or whoever.’ I don’t know that I did much of that. I was just always focused on playing well and getting better and beating whoever I was competing against.”

Competition was, and still is, a focal point of Nicklaus’ life. And golf, he often has said, was his vehicle for competing. Nicklaus was the kind of kid who, when he had a chance to break 70 for the first time, at age 13, begged his father to skip dinner. Charlie Nicklaus would have none of that, but he promised his son they could return to the course afterward if they hurried. They wolfed down the meal, raced back, and in the gloaming, young Jack buried a 35-footer on the 18th green for a 69.

But Nicklaus was ever mindful of his home course’s history, not to mention the quality of the Ross design, which he said had a significant influence on how he played the game and how he looked at courses from an architectural standpoint. In his 1969 autobiography, “The Greatest Game of All,” which he wrote with the help of fellow World Golf Hall of Famer, journalist Herbert Warren Wind, Nicklaus pointed out just how advantageous it was to play on a course that had hosted not only the 1926 national championship, but also the 1931 Ryder Cup and the 1950 PGA Championship, of which Jack has some vivid memories, plus scores of exhibition matches, state events and qualifiers for the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. Later, Scioto would host the 1968 U.S. Amateur and the 1986 U.S. Senior Open.

Nicklaus wrote that knowing how Jones played Scioto was a “spur” to him. He added: “It is a definite advantage for a young player, I believe, to grow up on a championship course, and there is something of additional value to be gained from knowing how a champion played the different holes. It gives you something concrete to measure your progress against.”

Progress was Nicklaus’ mantra. He first picked up a golf club at age 7 when his father put one in his hands – showing him the interlocking grip he would use his entire career – and he’d swing it in the backyard of their home in Upper Arlington. But, enthusiastically immersed in all of the popular sports – football, basketball and baseball – Jack didn’t actually start to hit shots on a course until he was 10. Even then, golf was just one of the sports he played.

The occasion for his introduction to golf and Scioto Country Club was what Nicklaus often has referred to as the “famous ankle injury.” A fine all-around athlete, Charlie Nicklaus had injured his ankle playing volleyball and had to have it fused. His doctor recommended walking 2 miles a day on soft ground for rehabilitation, which, in his mind, meant golf. For companionship, he’d take along his 10-year-old son, because he could only play a hole or two at a time, which eliminated rounds with his friends. So he and Jack would play a hole, and then Charlie would rest while Jack chipped and putted.

That summer, the new head professional, Jack Grout, a former tour player from Oklahoma who counted Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson among his closest friends, started a junior clinic at the behest of the club president, James L. Long. As Grout later recalled, “The first kid to sign up was Jackie Nicklaus, and the first kid on the lesson tee the first day was Jackie Nicklaus.”

That same year, Scioto hosted the PGA Championship. This made a big impression on the youngster, who with the help of Grout gained access to the locker room to meet players and get autographs. Skip Alexander, whom also was friends with Grout, shepherded Nicklaus around. As Nicklaus wrote in “My Story,” his 1997 autobiography: “After I’d gotten Sam Snead and Bob Hamilton and a few others to sign, Skip walked me over to Lloyd Mangrum. I can still see that slim, dark figure sitting at a table with a fan of cards in one hand and a glass of hooch in the other and a cigarette dangling from his lips, and recall how intimidated I was when he turned to me and gave me that famous tough look of his and snarled, ‘Whaddya want, kid?’ But he signed my autograph book, and I remember being extremely proud of my courage in standing up to such a fearsome character.”

Nicklaus also had the chance to meet the eventual champion, Chandler Harper. Later in life, Harper, a Virginia club pro, liked to tell the story of standing at his locker that week and being approached by Charlie and Jack. Harper had been assigned to their locker. Talk about happy coincidences.

Charlie and Jack Nicklaus shared many happy moments during trophy presentations during Jack's burgeoning career. (USGA Archives)

It didn’t take long for Nicklaus to be hooked – or for his father to notice. The monthly assessment for Jack’s procurement of range balls caught Charlie’s eye. But the younger Nicklaus clearly had the talent and temperament for the game, plus the ability to absorb Grout’s instruction and execute the fundamentals to quickly become an effective competitive golfer. How quickly? Well, he won the Scioto Juvenile Championship in that first year with a handsome score of 61-60-121 for 18 holes, and he repeated the following year. In 1952, he was the youngest member of the club’s junior league team that went undefeated in 10 matches around the city. He also broke 80 for the first time with a 74.

In 1953, the year he first bettered 70, his accelerating skills were undeniable. He won the Ohio State Junior Championship and the Columbus Junior Match-Play and Stroke-Play Championships in the 13-15-year-old division. Nicklaus also played in his first national championship, the U.S. Junior Amateur at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., advancing to the fourth round. Though he never won the U.S. Junior, Nicklaus more than made up for that later with a USGA ledger that includes a record four U.S. Open titles, two U.S. Amateurs and two U.S. Senior Opens.

The highlight of 1954 was not the Ohio Junior Championship title he won at nearby Brookside Golf & Country Club, but the Scioto Junior Championship. He triumphed in 38 holes over Bill Cowman, and along the way he made his first hole-in-one, on the 135-yard, par-3 17th during their morning round.

“Bill had put his tee shot about 2 feet from the pin, and then I knocked mine in the hole,” Nicklaus recalled. “In the afternoon, Bill again put his tee shot in close and knocked it in for his 2. I remember his father telling him as he walked off the green, ‘See, I told you that if you kept making 2s on this hole you’d win it eventually.’” 

Robin Obetz, who played alongside Nicklaus at Scioto from the time of Grout’s first class and who was best man at Jack’s wedding to Ohio State sweetheart Barbara Jean Bash, was asked when he knew that Nicklaus would be a special golfer. His reply was telling. “Jack was the best golfer in Grout’s class,” Obetz began. “He was the best golfer when we were juniors. He was the best golfer in high school. He was the best golfer in college. There never was a time when he wasn’t head and shoulders above everyone else.”

It wasn’t all natural talent. Throughout his teenage years, Nicklaus worked at the game, taking private lessons from Grout, hitting balls in the winter out of a makeshift Quonset hut at Scioto or indoors at Columbus Athletic Club. He did this while also still playing high school basketball (he averaged 18 points per game at forward his senior year while making honorable mention all-Ohio) and baseball. He had given up football, however, at the behest of Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, who had become a family friend.

Nicklaus made his U.S. Amateur debut in 1955 at the Country Club of Virginia. He lost in the first round, but the occasion was memorable for meeting Bob Jones, who was impressed with the youngster’s prodigious power. Jack was one of the few players to reach the par-5 18th hole on the James River Course in two shots. Having witnessed that, Jones asked to meet Jack and his father, who had been a huge fan of the Grand Slam winner since he followed him around Scioto during Jones’ 1926 U.S. Open victory.

Two years later, Nicklaus won the 12th International Jaycees Junior Championship at Ohio State Golf Course, which came with a $1,000 scholarship that he used to attend OSU, which didn’t offer golf scholarships. He also won his second straight Ohio High School individual title on the same OSU Scarlet Course and played in his first U.S. Open at Inverness Club in Toledo, where he missed the cut. But the victory that first put him on the map came in the 1956 Ohio Open at Marietta Country Club, where he closed with 64-72 to beat a field that included a number of professionals, including PGA Tour member Frank Stranahan, a Toledo native.

Sam Snead assisted in the victory, albeit unknowingly. He and Nicklaus were paired together in an exhibition at Urbana Country Club on the Friday of the championship. After a morning round of 70 in Marietta, Nicklaus hopped on a private plane to Urbana, about an hour west of Columbus, to play with the legendary golfer on the nine-hole course where another famous golf icon grew up: course architect Pete Dye. Snead shot 68 while a nervous Jackie Nicklaus held his own with a 72. But during their four-hour encounter, Nicklaus started to emulate Snead’s smooth tempo, and it carried over the next day when he returned to Marietta and fired a 64 that set the tournament record.

When he walked into the Scioto clubhouse to show off his trophy, Grout tried to feign surprise. “Why, Jackie, what have you got there?” But Grout was hardly surprised. It was around this time, Nicklaus wrote in “The Greatest Game of All,” that Grout told him: “I am honestly awed by the shots you can already play at your age. … You’ve not only got natural ability and golf intelligence, but a flair for competition as well.”

What immense promise Nicklaus possessed, he began to fulfill on a much larger scale in 1959. He was selected for his first USA Walker Cup Team, played in Muirfield, Scotland, and then later that year defeated Charlie Coe in the final of the U.S. Amateur Championship at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. Nicklaus exhibited determination and pressure-management by sinking an 8-foot birdie putt on the 36th hole for his 1-up victory against the defending champion.

“I believe our son was born for greatness,” Charlie Nicklaus told his wife Helen over the phone after Jack’s first national championship.

Though Nicklaus had missed the cut by a stroke in his first Masters that year, Jones said of “the Ohio strong boy,” as some newspapers referred to him, “He has the finest potential of any young player in many years.”

The next three years were affirmation of such glowing words. Nicklaus finished runner-up to Arnold Palmer in the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, tied for fourth in the Open the following year at Oakland Hills, and won a second U.S. Amateur title at Pebble Beach, dispatching Dudley Wysong in the final, 8 and 6. Later that fall, on Nov. 9, he declared he was turning professional.

His playoff victory over Palmer in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont was his first of 73 victories as a professional. It was a surprise to few. In the preceding two U.S. Opens, Nicklaus’ combined aggregate score of 566 was the lowest of any player, amateur or professional. Later that summer, Nicklaus and Palmer played an exhibition match at Scioto, which Jack also won, though this time much more easily, being his home course and all.

Fast forward to Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, and Jack Nicklaus is seated in a chair on the practice range at Scioto Country Club, surrounded by family members and old friends. The occasion is the unveiling of a plaque in his honor, recognizing his roots in golf. The plaque reads: “In 1950, Jack Nicklaus hit his first golf shot from this location under the watchful eye of Scioto's PGA Golf Professional, Jack Grout, beginning what would become the greatest career in golf history.”

Yeah, that sounds about right.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites. 

More from the USGA