Jack Nicklaus, one of the world’s greatest golfers, was only 10 when he first started playing golf. Two years later at 12, he won the first of the five straight Ohio State Junior titles he would hold. At 13, after a bout with polio, Nicklaus became the youngest qualifier as a U.S. Junior Amateur. Clearly a prodigy, he set records at his father’s Scioto Country Club, coached by club pro Jack Grout who would become his lifelong coach. By the time he was 17, Nicklaus had won 27 golf tournaments and would eventually be named the world’s top amateur golfer by Golf Digest magazine three times in a row. He turned pro at 21 after playing reigning golf champion Arnold Palmer in the 1960 U.S. Open, losing to him by just two strokes. In the next 25 years, Nicklaus would go on to win 18 major golf championships, including 6 Masters, 4 U.S. Open tournaments, 5 Professional Golf Association (PGA) tournaments, and 3 British Open tournaments.
He had studied to be a pharmacist like his dad Charlie Nicklaus, but, fresh out of college and newly married, he decided he might be able to make a living playing golf. He was right. Even in later years as he turned to golf instruction and course design, Nicklaus was able to handsomely support his wife and four sons with his golf expertise. He played a strong, steady game, noted for smooth long drives, and was capable of remarkable focus and composure under pressure. His conservative approach to the game, playing defense rather than offense, served him well.
Stocky and powerful, with a bob of blond hair, Nicklaus was dubbed “the Golden Bear” by a reporter who may have borrowed the nickname from the sports mascot at the high school where Nicklaus had been captain of the state-champion golf team. The nickname stuck, even after Nicklaus lost weight and got his hair cut, and it did not hurt his golf game. He played Arnold Palmer again in the 1962 U.S. Open and beat him, becoming the youngest ever to win and sparking an ongoing rivalry with Palmer. In the same year, Nicklaus won back-to-back tournaments in the Seattle and Portland Opens and tried for his first PGA Championship. He came in third, but won it the next year in 1963 along with the Masters tournament, becoming its youngest winner ever. Nicklaus teamed up with Arnold Palmer that year to win the Canada Cup for the United States in the World Cup tournament in Paris.
Only two years after turning pro, Nicklaus was already a famous golf champion and his career continued its upward trajectory well into the 1960s. His agent Mark McCormick, who also managed Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, marketed the golfers as Big Three Golf, lining up tournaments for television and forming an agency, International Management Group. Nicklaus eventually formed his own, Golden Bear Inc., the first of several successful business ventures.
In 1964, Nicklaus set a lowest score record during The Open Championship at the home of golf, St. Andrews in Scotland, despite playing in high winds. Partnering again with Arnold Palmer to defend their title, he played the 1964 Canada Cup tournament in Hawaii for the United States and won. He and Palmer would win it again in 1966 in Japan and won again as partners in the 1967 World Cup tournament in Mexico. In 1965 and 1966, Nicklaus became the first to win the Masters tournament two years in a row. He was just 26. Nicklaus regarded his performance in the 1965 tournament as his best ever, winning it by 9 strokes over Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, the biggest winning margin until Tiger Woods won by 12 strokes in 1997. Nicklaus achieved the first of his three Career Grand Slams in 1966 by winning four major tournaments, including the Masters, the U.S. Open, The Open Championship, and the PGA Championship.
It was not until 1967 that Nicklaus’s golf career started to slow down, indeed went into a slump. Though he did win The Open Championship at St. Andrews again in 1970 and was still ranked No.1 golfer in the world, he had started to gain weight, his golf swing had changed, and he was not winning like he used to. He won no tournaments in 1968 or 1969. The death of his father in 1970 was an additional blow. Nicklaus would experience another such slump beginning in 1978, but managed to pull himself out of it both times by doggedly continuing to play no matter what.
He started to turn things around in 1971 with a PGA Championship win. The following year he won both the Masters and the U.S. Open. Nicklaus won seven other tournaments in 1973, including the PGA Championship and was named PGA Player of the Year for the third time. His golf winnings that year topped more than $300,000, making him the first golfer to achieve a $2 million career PGA Tour earnings total. Nicklaus was named as one of 13 original inductees to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974 and in 1975 was named PGA Player of the Year for the fourth time, tying with golf legend Ben Hogan. By 1977, he would surpass Hogan’s record of career wins and be second only to golfer Sam Snead.
Nicklaus’s biggest year so far was 1978. He won The Open Championship at St. Andrews, making him the only golfer to have won each major tournament three times and achieving his third Career Grand Slam, a record not matched until 2008 by Tiger Woods. He said that it was his best four days of golf ever. Nicklaus also won three tournaments on the PGA Tour as well as the Tournament Players Championship for the third time and the Australian Open for the sixth time. He was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated.
But he would not win another tournament until 1980. To correct his golf swing that had veered away from its straightforward hits, Nicklaus got help from his long-time coach Jack Grout and from golfer Phil Rodgers who moved into Nicklaus’s home for a time to coach him. Nicklaus credited Rodgers with helping him win the U.S. Open in 1980. He had just turned 40.
He would achieve his fifth and final win of the PGA Championship in 1980, by a record seven shots. This win, along with his win of the U.S. Open the same year, made him the only player since Hogan in 1948 and Gene Sarazen in 1922 to win them both in a year. Tiger Woods, however, would be the new record bearer by winning both tournaments in 2000. Nicklaus did not win any majors again until 1986 but was already the first player to achieve more than $4 million in PGA Tour winnings and was captain of the U.S. team that beat the Europe in the Ryder Cup in 1983.
He won the Masters for the sixth time in 1986, his 18th major golf title, with an incredible seven-below-par score of 65 and become its oldest winner. A reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had said that Nicklaus was all washed up and predicted he would lose, a comment Nicklaus said spurred him on to win. Other reporters praised him for the win, his skill, and his longevity. Nicklaus played the Masters one more time in 1998 at the age of 58, not a win but scoring five under par. By this time, he had a bad left hip and had already joined the Senior PGA or Champions Tour, which gave him several more wins. In 2000 at the age of 60, he played his final PGA Championship paired with Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh, and at 65, played the Masters and The Open Championship tournaments one more time in 2005, announcing his retirement at St. Andrews during the tournament.
By this time, Nicklaus was in partnership with his three sons and son-in-law in Nicklaus Design, a golf-design architecture firm that has created more than 300 golf courses in the United States and around the world. At a course he designed, Muirfield Village in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, Nicklaus started and manages an annual Memorial Tournament, which generates funds for the Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Nicklaus and his wife Barbara run another philanthropic program, the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, which provides health care services to more than 4,000 children and supports an annual charity golf tournament at the Bears Club in Jupiter, Florida. In addition, Nicklaus has licensed his name for a Jack Nicklaus Golf computer game and runs the Nicklaus Golf Equipment company with three brands, Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus signature, and Nicklaus Premium to support different playing skill levels. Nicklaus has also written several books, including an autobiography, My Story: Jack Nicklaus, and several golf instruction books.
The Jack Nicklaus Museum on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, his hometown, gives the full Nicklaus story and exhibits his awards and artifacts of golf history. Nicklaus continues to win awards and accolades, serving as honorary starter for the Masters tournaments along with Arnold Palmer, and named a Global Ambassador by the International Golf Federation for his role in making golf part of future 2016 and 2020 Olympics. Though he left college before receiving his diploma, Ohio State University granted him an honorary doctorate in 1972 and gave him the honor of “dotting the i” during the university marching band’s signature formation of the name “Ohio” in the half-time homecoming show in 2006. Other honorees had been Bob Hope and Woody Hayes.
Jack William Nicklaus was born on January 21, 1940, in Columbus, Ohio, to parents Charles and Helen Nicklaus. His pharmacist father had played football for Ohio State and was what is known as a “scratch golfer,” a high compliment that means he played the game at par or lower. He continued to play at the Scioto Country Club where his son Jack would first play the game and be coached. Jack was raised in the Upper Arlington suburb of Columbus and graduated from Upper Arlington High School where the sports mascot was the Golden Bear, later Jack’s nickname, and where he excelled in athletics, including football, basketball, baseball, tennis, golf, and track and field. He enrolled at Ohio State where he at first majored in pre-pharmacy, then switched in his final year to insurance studies as a possible career to support his ongoing golfing career. Meanwhile, he met Barbara Bash in his junior year and married her the next summer in 1960. They were to have three sons, Jack II, Steven, and Michael, and a daughter Nancy.
The Golden Bear of golf, Jack Nicklaus, is a legend in his own time, still known at the age of 72 as the greatest golfer of the century. Even current golf champ Tiger Woods, as of 2012, has not broken his record, though he has done everything to try.
Bowden, Ken. Foreword by Jack Nicklaus. Teeing Off: Players, Techniques, Characters, and Reflections from a Lifetime Inside the Game. New York: Triumph Books, 2008.
Nicklaus, Jack. Golf My Way: The Instructional Classic, Revised and Updated. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Nicklaus, Jack, with Ken Bowden. Jack Nicklaus: My Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.
O’Connor, Ian. Arnie & Jack: Palmer, Nicklaus, and Golf’s Greatest Rivalry. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.