Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. – Jack Nicklaus looked at the three USGA trophies arrayed before him at the recent USGA Member Education Series event at PGA National Resort & Spa, and pondered the eight victories they represented in his matchless career. Then he remembered one particular putt.
“It was 1959 at The Broadmoor, the 36th hole; Charlie Coe had just chipped up for a conceded par, and I had an 8-foot putt for birdie to win the U.S. Amateur,” Nicklaus recalled. “My career basically started right there. That 8-foot putt gave me the opportunity to believe that I could win a championship; that I was good enough to play and I was good enough to win.”
Nicklaus went on to capture another U.S. Amateur in 1961, four U.S. Open victories (1962, 1967, 1972 and 1980), and a pair of U.S. Senior Opens (1991, 1993). His eight USGA championships are one behind Bob Jones and Tiger Woods for most all-time.
Something else happened that week in 1959 in Colorado Springs, Colo. One evening during the U.S. Amateur, Nicklaus was talking with his father, Charlie, about the round Jack had played that day. His father wondered aloud whether Jack, then 19 years old, had made the proper choice in choosing to chip a particular shot.
“Before my father even finished the question, I stopped him and said, ‘Whoops, time out,’ ” Nicklaus said. “I told him, ‘Dad, you’re my best friend, I love having you with me and I always want you there. But I’ve got to do this myself – this is my deal.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’re right.’ From then on, he was my greatest supporter, my greatest fan and my best friend. But never again did he try to tell me how to play golf.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that Nicklaus’ classic 1974 instructional book was titled “Golf My Way.” En route to 18 major championships, Nicklaus was never shy with his opinions, and over more than 90 minutes with moderator Rich Lerner of the Golf Channel, he provided a steady stream of insights into his career and opinions on the game for 120 USGA Members and guests at the fourth USGA Member Education Series at PGA National Resort & Spa Nov. 13-15.
Lerner brought up a famous photo from the 1977 British Open. “If you look at that photo of Jack and Tom Watson at Turnberry after the famous ‘Duel in the Sun,’ Jack was so gracious that – if you didn’t know golf – you wouldn’t be able to tell who won. It’s what he did in defeat that showed what Jack was all about.”
Nicklaus first played in a USGA event at age 13, the U.S. Junior Amateur at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. Though it is the only USGA championship for which he was eligible that he never won, Nicklaus took valuable lessons from it.
“Playing in USGA events growing up was something very special to me,” he said. “I remember walking to the tee for my first match, and it was about 30 seconds before my starting time. [USGA Executive Director] Joe Dey said to me, ‘Young man, 30 seconds later, and you would be walking to the second hole 1 down.’ From that moment on, Joe Dey was my guy. He was like a second father to me, and I never missed a tee time.
“I really appreciated the way Joe Dey set up a golf course for a USGA championship,” Nicklaus added. “He always had it very fair. You knew the greens would be quick and firm, you knew how wide the fairways would be; you were going to find out who was the best player that week.”
Nicklaus’ first U.S. Open victory was nearly 50 years ago, and his youth allowed him to be undaunted by the task, at formidable Oakmont not far from Arnold Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe, Pa.
“To be honest, at 22 years old, I didn’t even know where Arnold’s backyard was,” said Nicklaus with a laugh. “I just felt like I had given the 1960 and 1961 Opens away, and it was my turn to win. You’ve got to learn how to win, and 1960 was a really big time for me in the U.S. Open, because I learned why I didn’t win. I learned that other people get nervous, too, that other people have trouble coming down the stretch and you have to learn how to handle that.”
Palmer and Nicklaus finished 72 holes tied at 1-under-par 283. “By that time, I knew I was in Arnie’s backyard,” Nicklaus said. “It was customary in those days for players to split the purse ahead of a playoff, regardless of who won. Arnold came up to me on the practice tee and asked if I wanted to split, and I said no. It was a very nice gesture by him.”
Nicklaus won by shooting 71 to Palmer’s 74, and their rivalry began in earnest. Nicklaus recalled being paired with Palmer in the Phoenix Open soon after, and Arnold had encouraged him as they headed to the 18th tee to “play your game and make a birdie; you’ll get second place.” Nicklaus recalled ruefully that Palmer was on the way to winning by 12 shots.
The split purse came up again at the 1962 World Series of Golf, in which the four major championship winners played for a then huge purse of $75,000. “[Agent and promoter] Mark McCormack would automatically split the purse for that event,” Nicklaus said. “He would say, ‘For that much money, you have to split it.’ Well, I won the event, and had to split the purse evenly with Arnold and Gary Player [who won the British Open and the PGA that year]. That didn’t sit very well with me.”
Palmer and Nicklaus were always friendly rivals. Nicklaus received a tip from Palmer about putting from off the green, and he recalled that Palmer told him, “A bad putt is just as good as a good chip.” With a smile, Nicklaus said that from then on, “I would putt the ball 11 out of 10 times.”
“I had to fight Arnie’s Army,” Nicklaus said. “But I never had to fight him.”
Nicklaus discussed one of his favorite shots in a U.S. Open, one that sealed a victory over Palmer, who was paired with him in the final round in 1967 at Baltusrol.
“I needed a birdie 4 on the last hole to break Ben Hogan’s scoring record, but I wasn’t concerned with that – I was worried about winning the U.S. Open,” Nicklaus said. “But I hit a terrible 1-iron off the tee, and I was in the rough, in what looked like a tire rut. I hit an 8-iron, which left me 238 yards from the hole. I figured making a 6 would be OK, and I played a 1-iron with the wind blowing in our faces. I was actually playing it to the left, but I pushed it. Everyone was thinking, what a great shot, because I knocked it over the bunker and holed the birdie putt to break the record.
“I’ve gone back numerous times to that spot, and I’ve even teed up a driver, but I’ve never been able to hit the green again.”
Nicklaus mentioned a couple of famous shots at Pebble Beach as well: the iconic 1-iron on the par-3 17th hole “from 219 yards into a left-to-right wind” that hit the flagstick and sealed his 1972 U.S. Open victory, and a fairway-wood second shot in the 2000 U.S. Open to the 18th green, the final hole in his 44th and last U.S. Open. “It was very emotional,” he remembered. “I had tears in my eyes, and I ended up hitting the first putt fat and left it 12 feet short, and three-putted.”
His major championship career ended about a month later at St. Andrews, and he birdied his final hole, just as he had birdied his first hole in a major: the 1957 U.S. Open at Inverness. “I hit 3-wood and 7-iron to birdie that first hole at Inverness, and the only problem with the way I finished at St. Andrews is that it was on Friday, not Sunday. I had bogeyed No. 17, so I knew my major championship career was ending. When I got to the 18th green, even though I hadn’t made a putt all day, I just knew somehow that the cup was going to get in front of it. So I birdied my first hole in a major, and the last, with a lot of meat in between.”
Pressed to pick a shot in a U.S. Open that he would like to have back, Nicklaus chose two. “In the 1971 playoff at Merion with Lee Trevino, I left the ball in a bunker at both the second and third holes.” Trevino won by three strokes, 68-71. And about that rubber snake incident: “People talk about the gamesmanship and Lee throwing the snake at me on the first tee; it wasn’t that way at all. I saw him take it out of his bag and I asked him to throw it over to me.”
Other observations from the Golden Bear:
On his honeymoon: “Barbara and I were going to spend two weeks in New York City, and there we were on the first day, shopping for shoes in the pouring rain. We stayed at the Astor, and we went and saw Camelot. But we ran into someone who asked if I was going to play Winged Foot while I was in town. How lucky am I? I ended up playing Hershey Country Club, Winged Foot and Pine Valley on our honeymoon.” Lerner called it “a marriage made in golf heaven.”
On British Open courses: “I liked them all. You have to think about what to do, when to take a gamble. Seaside golf is totally played on where the bunkers are.”
On his first time breaking par: “I had shot seven rounds of 73 (at his home club, Scioto). One evening when I was 13, my dad and I played, and I shot 35 on the first nine. We had to go home for dinner; I pleaded with my father to keep playing. He agreed to come back to finish the round, and we ate dinner in about three minutes. I hit driver, 4-iron to the 18th green, which is a par 5, and made the putt in near darkness for an eagle and a round of 69.”
On his dream foursome: “My dream foursome is a fivesome – my four boys and I. I got to play with all those other guys.”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for USGA Communications. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.