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Nicklaus at 80: His Upbringing Molded Him into a Champion

By Dave Shedloski

| Jan 21, 2020

Columbus, Ohio, native Jack Nicklaus began collecting hardware at a young age. He eventually won eight USGA titles. (USGA Golf Museum)

This story originally appeared on the USGA's website on July 17, 2019 as part of the USGA's State Series celebrating the Association's 125th anniversary.

Were it not for choices made three generations before him, Jack Nicklaus might have been the most prominent golfer ever produced by the state of Kansas.

Hailing from the Alsace-Lorraine region of Germany, which it annexed from France in 1871 following its victory in the Franco-Prussian War, the Nicklaus clan, including Jack’s great-grandfather, Louis Charles Nicklaus, immigrated to the American Midwest. Louis Charles chose Columbus, Ohio, while some siblings headed to another Ohio city, Cincinnati. Others opted for Wichita, Kan. 

The Wichita branch pronounced its last name Nick-loss, accent on the second syllable. We know the Ohio family went with Nick-lus, accent on the first syllable.

Jack Nick-loss? That just never would have worked for arguably the greatest golfer of all time, the man whose will to win was at least as much responsible as his athletic prowess for capturing a record 18 professional major titles, including four U.S. Open, two U.S. Amateur and two U.S. Senior Open championships. His  73 PGA Tour wins rank third all-time behind Sam Snead (82) and Tiger Woods (81).

“I always thought I was pretty fortunate to have grown up in Columbus, Ohio,” Nicklaus said.

Had he not been raised in Columbus, Nicklaus would not have been introduced to golf at venerable Scioto Country Club, designed by renowned architect Donald Ross, and he would not have come to idolize Bob Jones, who won the 1926 U.S. Open at Scioto. Those who witnessed the victory, including Jack’s father, Charlie, told young Jack countless stories about Jones’ exploits at Scioto, inspiring the youngster to emulate the greatest amateur player in history.

And had his father not been a member at Scioto, Jack never would have been introduced to the head professional who arrived in 1950, just as Jack was picking up the game. The new pro, Jack Grout, started a junior clinic that summer. The first kid to sign up was 10-year-old Jack William Nicklaus. Grout helped mold Nicklaus into a dominant competitor. 

Such is the arc of fate. Or destiny.


Jack Nicklaus won the first of his two U.S. Amateur titles in 1959 at The Broadmoor. His second came in 1961 at Pebble Beach. (USGA Museum)

“I think I was blessed to be able to be a Buckeye,” Nicklaus, 79, said recently at the Memorial Tournament, the PGA Tour event he has hosted since 1976 at his own creation, Muirfield Village Golf Club, in the Columbus suburb of Dublin. “I think I was lucky to grow up at a great golf course like Scioto, have the opportunity to play at a great university like The Ohio State University and play the [OSU] Scarlet Course, which is a wonderful golf course.”

He ticked off a list of other great courses in Ohio, including Inverness Club in Toledo, which will host its eighth USGA championship this week, the 72nd U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. Jones, by the way, is probably partly responsible for the longest U.S. Open in history. He retired in 1930 after winning the Grand Slam. In 1931 at Inverness, Billy Burke defeated George Von Elm after a marathon 72-hole playoff. They were tied after 72 holes of regulation play and tied again after the first 36-hole playoff. So they did it again. Such was the competition before the age of television.

One of the advantages, Nicklaus said, of growing up in Ohio was not just the quality of the courses he experienced, but the variety of courses on different topographies. Ohio is unique in that it has three distinct topographical regions: the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains in the east, a flatter central plains section in the western half, and the Lake Erie shoreline to the north. Some argue a fourth exists with the Ohio River valley marking the southern boundary.

“We had a lot of really, really nice golf courses to play and play events on. And I think the better the golf courses you play, the better you develop your game,” Nicklaus said. “I think you develop – the terrain develops you, more side hill lies, downhill lies, hills and such. I happen to like it.”

Nicklaus isn’t the only prominent Ohio golfer. Start with Denny Shute, a Cleveland native, who won an Open Championship and two PGA Championships. Then there’s a collection of other major winners: Herman Keiser and Gay Brewer (Masters); Dow Finsterwald and Jason Dufner (PGA Championship); and Ben Curtis and Tom Weiskopf (Open Championship).

John Cook, a Toledo native, won the 1978 U.S. Amateur before amassing 11 PGA Tour victories. Stacy Lewis, also from Toledo, has two major titles among 14 wins on the LPGA Tour and went 5-0-0 in the 2008 Curtis Cup Match, the first to achieve such a feat.

World Golf Hall of Fame course designer Pete Dye, from Urbana, was a fine amateur player who won an Ohio high school state title (as did Nicklaus). The late Peggy Kirk Bell, noted golf instructor, course owner and touring professional from Findlay, recently was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Career amateur Bob Lewis captained two USA Walker Cup Teams and played on four others.

“Well, it's odd, but you wouldn't think that Ohio was a hotbed for growing golfers,” Nicklaus said, “and in Western Pennsylvania there was a guy that came from there that was pretty decent.”

And that guy had some Ohio ties.

Arnold Palmer, stationed in Cleveland during his stint in the Coast Guard, won two Ohio Amateur titles before capturing the 1954 U.S. Amateur, which launched his professional career. In a strange twist, Nicklaus never won the Ohio Amateur. But he did win the Ohio Open – at age 16, against a field largely comprised of professionals. That was in 1956, just after playing in an exhibition with Snead at Urbana Country Club, where one of the spectators was Dye, whose family owned the course.

From the age of six until well after he turned professional in 1961, Nicklaus figures he missed only one Ohio State University football game – and he remains an avid fan to this day. There was no doubt that he eventually would attend the school, where he won an NCAA individual title. He even played freshman basketball for the Buckeyes, but never entertained thoughts of a two-sport career. “They had a couple of guys named (Jerry) Lucas and (John) Havlicek, so they didn’t need me,” he once joked.

Nicklaus firmly believes that because he was an athlete who segued from one sport to another as the seasons changed, he became a better golfer. 

“I like seasons. To me you create so much more variety up in the northern part of the United States with your golf courses. And I think for a young guy to develop his game or her game, I think you have more interesting things to do than – even [players from] the South [like] Florida and Texas. They develop probably more golfers. It's only because I think it's pure numbers that [they] get to play year-round.

“I loved growing up playing here [in Ohio] because I was not a 12-month-a-year golfer,” he added. “I thought that you burn yourself out by doing that. And I was a kid, I think kids should play more sports. And you grow up here, you have a tendency to play more sports.”

Nicklaus said that had he not become a golfer, he probably would have pursued baseball. He was a switch-hitter and an excellent catcher, and he had some foot speed. In eighth grade, he ran the 100-yard dash in 11 seconds flat – thanks to his father goading him into learning how to run.

Like Palmer, he also excelled at football. But he gave up the sport. Legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, who had become a family friend, recommended that he quit and not jeopardize what already was appearing to be a promising future in golf.

Just one more benefit of an Ohio upbringing.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work regularly appears on USGA digital channels.