Mention the name Jack Nicklaus to a golfer, and so
many different things come to mind: champion,
architect, businessman, family man, and statesman are just
a few of the adjectives that would be appropriate.
When it came to winning, no other golfer in history, as
of this writing, has won more major championships than
Nicklaus’s total of 20, which includes two US Amateur
titles. As an architect, his designs are among some of the
best, including Muirfield Village, Castle Pines, and Shoal
Nicklaus was always the consummate family man,
trying to never play more than two weeks in a row when
his children were growing up. He and his wife, the former
Barbara Bash, continue to have close relationships with
their fi ve children: Jackie, Steve, Nan, Gary, and Michael.
He is also the grandfather of 21.
Jack William Nicklaus was born January 21, 1940, in
Columbus, Ohio, to parents Charlie and Helen. As a boy,
Nicklaus took up the game at age 10, and shot a 51 for
the first nine he ever played under the tutelage of Scioto
Country Club head professional Jack Grout.
Improving rapidly, Nicklaus became a child prodigy
not seen since the days of Bobby Jones, winning
numerous championships. He won the Ohio State Junior
Championship at age 12 for the first of five consecutive
victories in that tournament. He qualified for the US
Amateur at 15, and at age 16 he won the Ohio State Open against a field of top amateurs and professionals from around the state.
A year later in 1957, he qualified for
the first of his 44 consecutive US Open
appearances, and in the fall he entered
The Ohio State University. In 1958 at age 18, he played in his first PGA Tour event,
the Rubber City Open, and was just one
stroke out of the lead after 36 holes before finishing 12th.
In 1959, Nicklaus made his fi rst real
splash on the national scene, winning the fi rst
of his two US Amateur titles. A year later, he was a major factor in what many consider the greatest US Open of all time at Cherry Hills in Denver, Colorado. Playing the
final 36 holes with the great Ben Hogan, Nicklaus finished
in solo second place, two strokes behind Arnold Palmer.
Hogan later famously remarked, “I played 36 holes today
with a kid who should have won this thing by 10 shots,”
in describing Nicklaus’s relative inexperience at the time.
Nicklaus graduated from college in 1961 and went
to work selling life insurance. As a fan of Jones, Nicklaus
intended to follow in the great man’s footsteps and remain
an amateur competitor. Ultimately, Nicklaus realized he
wouldn’t be utilizing his greatest talent fully, and after a
conversation with USGA executive director Joe Dey, he
turned professional in November.
Nicklaus earned his first check as a professional at
the 1962 Los Angeles Open at Rancho Park Golf Course,
taking home the princely sum of $33.33. He played
frequently during the fi rst part of the year, entering 16
tournaments prior to the US Open at Oakmont Country
Club in Pennsylvania.
Palmer was the king of golf in 1962, having firmly
established himself as the game’s number one player, as
well as its most popular. Nicklaus, the reigning US Amateur
champion, and Palmer, were paired together for the first
two rounds of the Open. Palmer won the battle over the
fi rst 36 holes, shooting a -3 score of 139 to tie for the lead
with Bob Rosberg. Nicklaus was three strokes back at 142
in fourth place, tied with Bobby Nichols and Gary Player.
Accounts vary on how many times Palmer three-putted during regulation play, but a 1962
article indicated Palmer took seven, while Nicklaus had
one. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that on the 72nd hole, Palmer’s 10-footer to win stayed on the high side, necessitating a playoff the next
Once again, Nicklaus’s putting was sharp and Palmer’s was not, and
Nicklaus went on to win the playoff
71 to 74. It was his first professional
victory, and of course, the first of 18 professional majors.
Player agent Mark McCormack
gave Nicklaus his famous nickname in a magazine interview when he described him as a “golden bear.” By 1963, the nickname was permanently associated
Nicklaus’s dominance as a player was remarkable, not
only in terms of winning majors, but in consistency. He
finished in the top four of the PGA Tour’s money list for
17 consecutive years, from 1962 to 1978. In 1979, Nicklaus
struggled with his game, didn’t win a tournament for the
first time in his professional career, and finished 71st on the
money list. Jack Grout noticed that Nicklaus had become
too upright in his swing, so in the 1979-80 offseason they
set about to remake Nicklaus’s swing to be rounder and
After also enlisting the services of short-game guru
Phil Rogers, Nicklaus had a stellar 1980, winning the US
Open and PGA Championship. He would go on to win
three more times in his PGA Tour career, including the
historic 1986 Masters.
Nicklaus’s interest in golf course architecture was
whetted in the 1960s, when Pete Dye asked Nicklaus
for his opinion on Dye’s new course, The Golf Club, in
suburban Colombus. Nicklaus’s first design, a co-design
with Dye, was the highly acclaimed Harbour Town Golf
Links in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Since then, he has
designed more than 300 courses worldwide, and his design
work keeps him traveling the globe. Also working in his
golf course architecture firm are sons Jackie, Steve, Gary,
and Michael, and son-in-law Bill O’Leary, who is married
to Nicklaus’s daughter Nan.
Nicklaus, as a businessman, has also been very
successful, not only in golf course architecture, but in
other ventures including book author, clothing, golf
academies, and equipment. Despite the higher profile of
other equipment companies, Nicklaus Golf continues to
hold its own in the marketplace.
As an author, Nicklaus’s 1974 book Golf My Way is an
all-time classic, influencing countless golfers, among them
Greg Norman, Ernie Els, K. J. Choi, John Daly, and Sean
O’Hair. In addition, Nicklaus put out a video version of the
book in 1983, and has written 12 others.
Nicklaus’s life hasn’t been completely without
difficulties, of course. In the mid-1980s, Nicklaus
Companies (then known as Golden Bear Golf), the
umbrella from which all of his businesses operate, got
overextended with debt after getting involved in some
non-golf-related businesses, and was close to bankruptcy.
With tighter management, the company was able to stave
off bankruptcy and prosper.
In 1996, the Golden Bear company went public, but
soon ran into difficulties. John R. Boyd and Christopher Curbello, who headed Golden Bear’s golf course construction
subsidiary, Paragon Construction International,
overstated the subsidiary’s revenues and contract profitability,
which caused Golden Bear to file false and misleading
financial statements for 1997 and the first quarter
of 1998. In 2000, Golden Bear was taken private, and remains
in the hands of Nicklaus and his family as Nicklaus
Companies. In late 2003, Boyd and Curbello pleaded
guilty to conspiracy to commit securities fraud.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy in Nicklaus’s life occurred
in March 2005, when his 17-month-old grandson Jake, son
of Steve, drowned in a hot tub after the family’s nanny lost
track of the toddler. Nicklaus wasn’t sure he wanted to
play in that year’s Masters, but with encouragement from
Steve, he teed it up at Augusta National
for what proved to be the final time
in the major championship most
associated with Nicklaus.
Later that year, he played in
a tournament for the final time
at St. Andrews in The Open
Championship. As he had done
so many times in his career, he
birdied the final hole.
Today, a new generation of golfers
and sports fans know Nicklaus as
that guy whose majors record is being
chased by Tiger Woods. Ultimately,
we know Nicklaus is far more than
just a historical competitor. His legacy,
not only as a champion but also of
sportsmanship and putting family first,
is sure to be noted as long as the
game is played.