Nicklaus' first pro win happened to be at U.S. Open

Jun 13 2012 - 5:07pm

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Jack Nicklaus fields questions from Mayport-area sailors who filled the hangar bay of the w:USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) to see the golfer. During his visit to the Naval Station, Nicklaus met with Mayport-area Sailors and received a personal tour of the Kennedy by Commanding Officer Capt. Todd A. Zecchin in 27 September 2006
Jack Nicklaus fields questions from Mayport-area sailors who filled the hangar bay of the w:USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) to see the golfer. During his visit to the Naval Station, Nicklaus met with Mayport-area Sailors and received a personal tour of the Kennedy by Commanding Officer Capt. Todd A. Zecchin in 27 September 2006

As the world of golf turned to the U.S. Open this week at San Francisco's Olympic Club, many fans are feeling the buzz about Tiger Woods' reconciliation with his "A game."

His win on June 3 in Jack Nicklaus' Memorial tournament, his second victory this spring, may have revitalized Tiger's ballyhooed pursuit of Jack's record of 18 major tournament championships. Ironically, Tiger's 73rd PGA Tour win at the Memorial tied him for second with Jack on the all-time tour list behind Sam Snead's 82 first-place checks.

But there's even more irony. This week's Open marks the 50th anniversary of both Nicklaus' first major and his first win as a professional - the 1962 U.S. Open at Pittsburgh's Oakmont Country Club. Making a splash as a tour rookie wasn't something Tiger created in 1996; Jack played that game, too. "Jack was forever in Palmer's head after the 1962 Oakmont, much as until recently Tiger has been in every golfer's head," Kaye Kessler offered last week. The retired Ohio sports columnist covered much of Nicklaus' career while at the "Columbus Citizen-Journal."

Son of a Columbus pharmacist and drugstore chain owner, Jack played in his first U.S. Amateur in 1955 as a 15-year-old. As an Ohio State sophomore, he won the championship for the first time in 1959, which propelled him into the field for the 1960 U.S. Open near Denver. Paired in the final round with the aging, but steel-willed Ben Hogan, the two looked, as one wag put it, a pairing in a father-son outing. Hogan, 47, faded late in the day in what would be his last attempt at a national championship. Nicklaus played well, but the hard-charging Arnold Palmer won after starting the last round seven shots back of the 54-hole leader. Jack finished second, two strokes back, and his 282 total remains the best amateur score in U.S. Open history.

In 1961, soon after winning his second Amateur, Nicklaus debated turning pro. It was a lengthy conversation, one he repeatedly held with his young wife Barbara and his parents. He wrote of the time in his 1997 memoir, "I began to wonder, for about the zillionth time, about what amateur golf challenges remained to inspire me."

Jack consulted with Mark McCormack, agent for Palmer and Gary Player, and a pioneer in the sports marketing business. McCormack told the 21-year-old Nicklaus that he could expect to make about $100,000 in his first year as a pro, not counting prize money. That was real folding money then - $760,000 in 2012 dollars - in the time when the leading money winner in 1961, Player, earned $65,000. McCormack's estimate proved reason enough to exit the amateur ranks. On Nov. 8, 1961, Nicklaus announced to Kessler and the rest of the Ohio news media that he was becoming a professional golfer.

Sportswriters predicted success for the 5 foot 11, 200-pound Ohio State undergrad. His power off the tee came from his thick legs and torso, attributes that led the reporters to use adjectives such as "chunky," "husky" and "hefty" when describing the rookie pro. "Sports Illustrated" headlined a 1960 article on Nicklaus with clear descriptor - "One Whale of a Golfer." To many in a tournament gallery, however, he was just "Fat Jack."

Nicklaus earned $33.33 in his first tour event, the 1962 Los Angeles Open, which was more a slice of humble pie than a paycheck. His tie for 15th in San Diego that paid $550 was a step forward and excited the golf writers, who had seen Nicklaus as an immediate threat to Palmer and Player. But poor showings, prompted by poor putting, at the Lucky International - $62.86, and the Palm Springs Classic - $164.44, slowed his momentum.

At the Phoenix Open, the tour's putting wizard, George Low, convinced Jack to switch putters. The new flat stick made a difference, and in New Orleans, Jack tied Palmer for ninth. After a tune-up with his longtime coach Jack Grout, Nicklaus finished third at the Doral event in Miami.

Nicklaus lagged to a 14th-place tie at the Masters, but found himself in the lead in Houston on the seventh hole of the last round. A local caddy named Four-One - something to do with his skill at craps - tended the flag for Jack's birdie putt. As the ball neared the hole, Four-One pulled the stick . . . and the cup came with it. Two-shot penalty. Jack lost in a playoff to Bobby Nichols and Dan Sikes.

The rookie rebounded with a second in the tour's richest event, New Jersey's Thunderbird Classic and took home $10,000. He then headed to Oakmont for a practice round before the June 14 start of the U.S. Open.

Oakmont has always been a tough track. Nicklaus agreed, calling it "America's supreme example of the penal school of architecture." Designed in 1903 by club founder H. C. Fownes and his son W. C., Oakmont featured fast greens and tight fairways, and sported 208 bunkers, including the renowned Church Pews. Today, Oakmont claims to have hosted more combined USGA and PGA championships than any other course in the United States. The club has welcomed eight U.S. Opens, five U.S. Amateurs, three PGA Championships and two U.S. Women's Opens. Nice pedigree, indeed.

USGA's Executive Director Joe Dey skillfully paired the up-and-coming Nicklaus in the first two rounds of the championship with Palmer, who many considered the world's best at that time. Coming off a win at the Masters, Palmer enjoyed the talk of a "big slam" that season, winning all of the major tournaments.

The fans loved the colorful Palmer and his aggressive and risk-taking play. The son of the no-nonsense greenkeeper and head pro at Latrobe Country Club, which was just 35 miles east of Oakmont, Arnie was especially popular in southwest Pennsylvania. The throng that followed him around golf courses in that time became known as Arnie's Army.

On the other hand, Jack was cold and uncharismatic in those days and his self-confidence bordered on arrogance, at least to some observers. He prided himself on the ability to wall off distractions on the golf course, but that concentration further divorced him from the crowd.

On the first day, the long-driving Nicklaus opened with 3-3-3 on the first three holes, and Palmer struggled to a 4-6-4 string. The combined start irritated the gallery, which didn't much take to the hefty college kid. Fueled by Rolling Rock and Iron City beer, crossover Steeler fans taunted Nicklaus - "Miss it, Fat Guts!" They even stomped the ground in unison when Jack putted and one man waved a sign that declared, "Nicklaus is a pig." Jack's dad Charlie lost his temper at one point, and his friend Woody Hayes, the Ohio State football coach, had to restrain the big pharmacist.

Nicklaus shot a 1-over 72 in the first round; Palmer had a 71. On the next day, Jack posted a 70, but Arnie answered with a 3-under 68. "I wasn't playing sensational golf," Jack recalled, "few ever have or will on a course as penal as Oakmont." Fog and rain slowed the speedy greens.

Palmer spun a positive note to reporters about Jack's distance off the tee. "It helped me," he said. "Because I knew he'd outdrive me, I accepted that fact and never had the urge to overdrive the ball. He's a big boy." At least one experienced observer at the championship had a differing view of Arnie's attention to Nicklaus's length.

"The fact that the kid was outdriving him really got under Arnold's skin," Kaye Kessler said in a recent phone interview. The columnist walked all 90 holes with Nicklaus at Oakmont and witnessed the rough treatment the galley afforded Jack.

In 1962, those who made the 36-hole cut, played the last two rounds on Saturday, with a lunch break in between. This format was a throwback to the time when many top players considered anything less than 36-hole round to be a poor test of a champion's mettle.

Palmer held a share of the lead with Nichols after 54 holes on Saturday morning, and Phil Rodgers and Bob Rosburg trailed by one stroke; Nicklaus was two back. Pleased with his driving, Jack felt even better about his putting - no three-putts in the first three rounds. Palmer's position on the top of the leaderboard belied his lousy work on the greens. He averaged 35 putts for the first three rounds, a stat normally not associated with winning the U.S. Open.

On a sunny afternoon, Palmer started hot, and Nicklaus, cold. On the ninth tee, Jack found himself four strokes behind Arnie, while Rosburg and Rodgers began to slip back to the pack as well. But Nicklaus, playing in the pairing in front of Palmer, birdied the ninth and 11th while Palmer bogeyed nine and 13. With five holes to play, the two shared the tournament lead.

On the short par-4 17th, Nicklaus attempted to drive the green. He landed in a bunker instead and his sand shot barely cleared the hazard. His chip onto the green left a knee-knocking, four-footer for par, a downhill putt with two breaks in the 48 inches. "I decided to bite the bullet and try jam the ball into the hole - to hit it hard enough to eliminate both breaks," he recalled years later.

Had he missed the cup, Nicklaus would have had an eight-footer coming back. But he willed the ball into the hole, as he would on many occasions in the future. After a par on 18, Jack was in the clubhouse with a 1-under 283.

Palmer could not produce one of his patented stretch drives in the final round, but still had a chance to win the championship with a 10-foot birdie putt on 18. As he studied the line, his friend and playing partner Rosburg said, "If you were ever going to make a putt, make this one, will you?" To the dismay of the huge gallery, the ball slipped by the cup on the high side. Arnie made the come-backer to tie Nicklaus.

The two men - one the "King" and the other a brash pretender - teed off at 1:45 p.m. on Sunday for an 18-hole playoff. By then, heat and humidity bolstered Oakmont's defenses, as well as prickling the 11,000 people on the grounds. Nicklaus said later that Palmer had offered to split the purse, a common practice in those days during playoffs, but Arnie said he couldn't remember that detail. The USGA, however, did evenly divide the added revenue from the extra round between the two players.

"On the first hole, Palmer really smoked his drive and must have thought, 'Take that youngster,'" recalled Kessler. "I followed the pair down the fairway, and when Arnie saw that Jack had outdriven him by thirty yards, he was steamed. That set the tone for the playoff."

After six holes that featured two Nicklaus birdies and two Palmer bogeys, the fat boy had a four-shot edge. By the par-5 ninth, Nicklaus wasn't counting his chickens, but wondered when Arnie might mount his signature charge.

Palmer birdied nine and 11, cutting Jack's lead to two shots. Another birdie on 12 stoked the already fiery gallery. "Uh oh; here he comes," thought Nicklaus. "Don't be an idiot; play your own game," he told himself.

But Palmer three-putted 13, his second three-jack of the round, and his charge lost some of its steam. Jack was up two strokes with five holes to play. "I decided that if I could finish with a string of safe pars, I would win the Open," he thought at the time. He made four of them, but so did Arnie. On the par-4 18th, Palmer was two back and needed a miracle.

He got half of his wish when Jack pull-hooked his drive into the rough, where it imbedded as if someone had stepped on it. Was the Army on the march? Nicklaus gained no relief from a rules official who told him to "play it as it lies." While Jack pondered his next shot, Palmer hit a fat 3-iron short of the green and into the rough. That made Jack's decision easier.

Nicklaus wedged back to the fairway and hit a 9-iron pin high, about 12 feet away. Palmer could gain another tie only if he chipped in and Nicklaus two-putted. Alas, Arnie's chip ran across the green and onto the far collar. Jack putted to within 20 inches and marked his ball.

Palmer missed his putt and picked up Jack's marker as a sign of concession. Joe Dey reminded Palmer that it was stroke play and made Nicklaus putt out. That took some of the fizz out of Jack's celebration, but he still won the playoff by three strokes.

"It was over," Nicklaus wrote later. "I was the Open champion as well as the Amateur champion."

He was the first player with that distinction since Bobby Jones had won the Grand Slam in 1930.

Palmer, who would win the British Open the following month, warned the golf writers about Nicklaus's future. "I'll tell you something, now that the big guy is out of the cage, everybody better run for cover."

 


 

ABOUT THE WRITER

Michael K. Bohn is the author of "Money Golf," a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."

Bohn also wrote "The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism" (2004), and "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president's alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.

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