Honoring the Golden Bear

By Jason Priestas on September 28, 2010 at 4:38p
What an honor

Tonight at 9pm, the Big Ten Network honors Jack Nicklaus at #18 on their list of the top 50 student athletes in Big Ten history based soley on their collegiate playing careers. That last part is pretty important, because if the network were ordering this group based on collegiate and professional careers, the Golden Bear would be a lock for the top three. Tonight's episode, like all Big Ten Icon episodes, will be narrated by the great Keith Jackson and will feature interviews with Jack, Bob Knight, Arnold Palmer and others.

I'm guessing most of you recall only his triumph at the 1986 Masters, if anything, from his non-senior circuit playing days, so I wanted to take a minute and highlight some of Nicklaus' accomplishments, both at Ohio State and during his PGA career.

Raised in Upper Arlington, just minutes away from the Horseshoe, Nicklaus, like his father, were die-hard Buckeye fans. From the time he was six years old until he was 20, he missed only one Ohio State football game, so it's no surprise really, that he was a lock to attend OSU despite being recruited by every major golfing program in the country. Having already won 27 events around the state between the ages of 10 and 17, including five-straight Ohio junior titles, the Bear's athletic skills were never in doubt -- he even held aspirations of playing football or basketball for his beloved Buckeyes. Though Woody would tell Jack's father that he was so good at golf, he'd "keep him as far away from my game as I could," Nicklaus was also recruited by Ohio State to play basketball along with the likes of Havlicek and Lucas.

Ultimately, Jack dedicated himself to golf and that move did not take long to pay off. As a sophomore, playing varsity for the first time (remember the ancient rule prohibiting freshmen from playing varsity athletics), Nicklaus entered the 1960 US Open and finished just two shots behind Arnold Palmer, setting a new amateur record at the event with a score of 282. As a junior in 1961, he won the Big Ten by 16 strokes and also captured the NCAA championship. To top it off, he captured the US Amateur championship (his second) that year, becoming the first golfer to bag both the NCAA championship and US Amateur championship in the same year (though the feat has since been accomplished by Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore).

For his efforts, Nicklaus was named the world's top amateur golfer by Golf Digest Magazine for three-straight seasons from 1959-1961. Today, when a collegiate golfer captures the player of the year hardware, he's given the Jack Nicklaus Award.

As good as Jack was as an amateur, he was better as a pro, capturing 18 majors (six Masters, four US Opens, three British Opens and five PGA Championships) as part of 115 worldwide championships during his 25 year playing career. The 18, long thought to be one of sports' "unbreakable" records before the arrival of Tiger Woods at least, appears to be safe for the near term, thanks to Tiger's unmatched libido. Even more astounding is the number of close calls Jack had in majors, finishing in the top three 45 times. Getting by with blasts off the tee (he set a 20 year record for long drive at the 1963 PGA Championship with 341 yard effort) and a killer putting game. Though he lacked a top-notch short game for much of his career, because in his words, he "didn't need one", it's scary to think about what he could have done had he had one. When asked recently about it, he had the following to say:

"If I were to look back on my work, I think I accomplished probably about 70 to 75 percent of what I could have. Maybe 60 percent. Somewhere in that area; two-thirds of what I could have accomplished. If I had been a really dedicated person, and really worked hard, I think I could have accomplished more."

Widely regarded as golf's finest, Nicklaus might have experienced his top moment 20 years after his career ended when he dotted the "i" at halftime of the Minnesota game in 2006, joining Bob Hope and Woody Hayes as the only non-band members so honored.

I realize this could be a stretch, given the average age of this site's readers (and writers), but if you have a great Golden Bear memory, either from watching him in action on television, or running into him around town, it would be great if you could share it in the comments.


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Roger's picture

Well, I can think of at least one writer here that probably remembers when Nicklaus was playing high school golf.

Jason Priestas's picture

Luke is old, but not quite that old.

M Man's picture

I caddied for Nicklaus once.  And I've had the chance to spend a little bit of time with him since.  And he isn't just a great guy.  He's a GREAT guy.  And he loves his Buckeyes.  And those competitive fires really, really burn.

Sports Illustrated's Athlete of the Century sums it all up pretty nicely.

So here's my Golden Bear story.  Obviously, these cfb blogs want to steer clear of politics, and this isn't really a political story.  But back in the 2004 Presidential election, Michigan and Ohio were two swing states that were very much in play, and critical to the Bush campaign.  I was at a football tailgate with Jack and Steve and some other friends -- the Nicklaus crew likes to hunt in Michigan in the fall -- and we were sort of naturally talking about the election which was just a few weeks away.  And Jack had been the star attraction for the big, final Bush rally somewhere in Ohio.  I mentioned that I had been a volunteer election lawyer for the party in Michigan, and that Bo Schembechler had done the same thing a couple of days earlier.  Jack looked me straight in the eye and with a total stone-face said, "We had more people at ours."

Matt's picture

I'm curious -- at what course did you caddy for him, and what did he shoot?  Scioto CC?

M Man's picture

It was one of his earliest designs.  Done with Pete Dye, in Michigan.  Jack was only 33 at the time!  What makes that cool, is that he was at the peak of his powers.  Close to the same age Tiger is now.  Jack was phenomenally long, even compared to other tour players.  And I was just 17.

He was 1-under.

KenK's picture

Jack's 1-iron into the 17th at the 1972 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Rips into into high winds, it hits the pin and drops to within inches for a tap-in birdie.

The 1975 Masters was pretty damn exciting with Jack fending off Miller and Weiskopf. The last hour of play was pretty damn exciting.

Whoo boy.

Johnny Hooker: "He's not as tough as he thinks". Henry Gondorff: "Neither are we".

slippy's picture

There have been others to dot the i haven't there?  John Glenn?  Didn't Gordon Gee get to as well?  I thought there were one or two more.


Having said that, and being only 25 my favorite Jack memory was being at the game when he did it.  I love the sport of golf (playing and watching) and was always sad I never got to see the real Jack play...but was very glad I was at that game when he did it.

Jason Priestas's picture

There are definitely others, but some were honored with the alumni band, while others dotted with TBDBITL.  It's a gray area with some and I'm not 100% on the specifics in some of the instances, so I could be off.

More info here: http://tbdbitl.osu.edu/?action=a074

Powers's picture

nothing like that birdie on 17 in the 1986 Masters...... YES SIRRR!!!

TLB's picture

Met Jack at Muirfield, told him who I was and we chatted for a few minutes about DLB.  Other than that and the '86 Masters, watching Jack win twice at his home tourney has to be my highlight.

No matter how many majors Tiger wins, Jack will always be the greatest.

Chris Lauderback's picture

I met the Bear once myself, at the Memorial when I was about 18 or 19. I was a worker there at the villas on the 1st fairway for a few years during the tournament week. I was on a golf cart running some trash and I saw Jack, Payne Stewart and Brent Musburger walking near the clubhouse. Jack waved me over so I pulled up and said hello. He asked me my name, made some small talk and told me to make sure the guests were taken care of. Then, Stewart hopped in my cart and told me to take him to the practice range. It was like a 40 yard ride but Payne still handed me $50.

BigRedBuckeye's picture

My memory is not as personal as some of yours, but it was something that really served as a link between me, Jack, and the University. There is a par 4 on Scarlet (95% sure), I want to say its the 16th, that, before renovations (done by Jack, of course, and which I have not played) used to play something like 300-350 yds, depending on the tee. But it was a dog leg, and as the crow flies, it was probably more like 290-310. However, running along the left side of the hole was out of bounds, because, well, that's Kenny Road. Directly between the tee and the green was a big tuft of woods, making it so you could not fire directly at the pin. The fairway wrapped around the right side of those trees, then bent back to the left towards the green to create the dog leg. Imagine a capital letter " D " and you get the shape.

So I was playing one time with an older fella, who was decked in very official looking OSU golf team garb. Eventually he told us he had some connection to the golf team earlier in life (assistant coach? manager? don't recall) but had been retired for many years. In any event, he knew Jack during his student days and was telling us lots of great stories, but the one that intrigued me the most was regarding the 16th hole. He said Jack was so long and had such good command of the shape of his shots, he used to (or at least on occasion) play the 16th different than anyone. He'd line up aiming LEFT of the tuft of woods, out over Kenny Road. He'd hit a monster fade, taking the ball over the road, out of bounds, and bending it back in, and wind up on, or near, the green, almost every time. Hearing this, and standing there and looking at an imaginary ball flight of that shot had as all awestruck. 

By the third year of law school, I knew the course pretty well and though my game wasn't what it is now, I have always been a pretty long hitter, and, back then, played a fade. A handful of times I had been dared to try Jack's shot, but there was always traffic or some other reason to skip it. Finally one day, the stars aligned; a buddy goaded me into it, with proper spotters watching the road, which was strangely low-trafficked. Anyway, I gave it a go, hit just about the best shot I could hit, and my ball wound up on the left side of the green, on the fringe. Of course, I did not get it up and down, and wound up parring the hole, but it was a great personal moment, and, as a result, it really strengthened the appreciation I have for Jack and his time at OSU.

Oh, and the museum is pretty cool, too.

And we'll drink to old Ohio, 'Til we wobble in our shoes! 

Chris Lauderback's picture

Nice story, BRB. How ironic you played a fade. I am a professor of the accidental fade so the only way my ball would hit the fringe if I tried to duplicate your shot would be if the ball ricocheted off a dump truck.

O-H-I-Owe-U's picture

I took a landscape architecture class at Ohio State and did a site study project on Muirfield Village. That place is a piece of heaven thanks to Jack's perfectionism.

By chance, a good childhood friend of mine is now the OSU Mens golf coach. His name is Don Darr. Expect great things from the Buckeye golfers in the years to come. 

FYI...Ohio State is hosting the Jack Nicklaus Invitational, Oct. 11-12 at Scioto Country Club.

Go bucks!