Jack Nicklaus: Revisiting the Career of Golf’s Greatest Player

Jack Nicklaus

At present, Jack Nicklaus continues to serve as an ambassador for golf. Let’s take a trip down memory lane to revisit how he became one of the world’s most famous and beloved athletes.

The Early Years

Jack William Nicklaus was born in Columbus, Ohio, on January 21, 1940. He was raised in Upper Arlington, a  suburb of Columbus only a few miles away from Ohio State University. Growing up, Nicklaus participated in various sports, including basketball, baseball, track, and tennis. He eventually focused on golf, which he began playing at the age of ten.

Nicklaus soon rose to prominence as one of the finest golfers in junior golf. At 13, he qualified for his first national tournament, the U.S. Junior Amateur. The following year, Nicklaus met Arnold Palmer at the Ohio State Amateur in Toledo for the first time. At the age of 15, Nicklaus qualified for his first U.S. Amateur and won the Ohio Open at age 16 against a field of predominantly professional golfers.

In 1957, Nicklaus enrolled at Ohio State and competed in his first of 44 consecutive US Opens. He intended to be a pharmacist like his father, but golf eventually became his profession.

Nicklaus’ amateur reached new heights when he won the first of two US Amateur titles in 1959.

He drew even more attention on a national scale in 1960, when he placed second at the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Denver. Only Palmer’s heroic Sunday 65 was enough to beat Nicklaus by two strokes in what some consider the greatest major championship ever played. Nicklaus played the final 36 holes with Ben Hogan. 

In 1961, Jack won his second U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, making him the first player in history to win both the U.S. Amateur and the NCAA individual title in the same year.

Professional golf was not the lucrative industry it is today, and Nicklaus seriously considered staying an amateur like his hero Bobby Jones, but finally moved up to the professional ranks to play against the absolute best.

1960’s: The Beginning of a Storied Professional Career

Jack Nicklaus began his remarkable professional career in 1962 and didn’t take long to establish himself as a household name in golf.

His first professional victory came in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. Not only did Nicklaus win his first major title, but he also defeated the King, Arnold Palmer, in his own backyard.

It proved to be the beginning of an amazing run in major championships that isn’t likely to be matched ever. Nicklaus won his first Masters in 1963, and in 1965, after playing the first two rounds of the Masters at Augusta National, he had a breakthrough. After years of being regarded as golf’s villain, Nicklaus finally felt the crown in attendance rooting for him. 

 Fueled by the support of adoring fans, he shot 64 in the third round. “I had never before and have never since played quite as wonderful a full round of golf in a major championship as I did on Saturday, April 10, in the third round of the Masters,” Nicklaus wrote in his autobiography of that eight-birdie, no-bogey round.

The following year, at the age of 26, Nicklaus won his first Claret Jug at Muirfield, clinching his career Grand Slam. Nicklaus had won seven majors and 30 PGA Tour championships at the turn of the decade. But he was just getting started.

1970’s: A Decade of Sheer Dominance

Nicklaus dominated the 70s, capturing eight majors and 38 PGA Tour crowns. In his 40 major championship starts during the decade, Nicklaus finished outside the top 10 only five times and missed the cut just once.

Tiger Woods was the only other player with a comparable dominant run in the 2000s. From 2000-2008, Woods won 12 majors and placed in the top ten in 25 of the 38 majors.  (He missed two majors in 2008 due to injury.)

Nicklaus came back from a mini-slump at the 1970 Open in St. Andrews, winning his first major title since the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol. The following year, he won the 1971 PGA Championship, becoming the only player to complete the career Grand Slam twice.

He won the first two majors of 1972 and was on the verge of conquering the third leg when he fell by one stroke to Lee Trevino at The Open in Muirfield.

In 1975, Nicklaus again bagged two majors for the second time. He clinched the Masters title in thrilling fashion. Nicklaus birdied the par-5 15th and then made a long putt for birdie on the par-3 16th to narrowly beat Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf by a single stroke.

Nicklaus capped his incredible run in the 1970s by winning the 1978 Open at St. Andrews. For the second time in his career, “The Golden Bear” won the claret jug on the hallowed links to clinch his third career Grand Slam. Woods will eventually match Nicklaus’s three career grand slams at the 2008 U.S. Open.

For the first time in his illustrious career, Nicklaus failed to win a single tournament in 1979, but he reinvented his game as all the greats do. He worked on his swing with Jack Grout and his short game with Phil Rodgers, who played on the PGA Tour in the 1960s and was Nicklaus’ friend for 20 years.

The hard work would pay off swiftly, as a 40-year-old Nicklaus broke into the majors in 1980.

1980’s: the G.O.A.T. Calls it a Career 

With his business interests flourishing off the course and having already surpassed Bobby Jones’ record of 13 major championships (professional and amateur), Nicklaus already thought about retiring as he approached 40. The Golden Bear eventually opted to retool his game and play a limited schedule centered on the majors and his own Memorial Tournament.

His work paid off as Nicklaus went on to win the US Open and PGA Championships in 1980 and his second Memorial in 1984.

Then, at the age of 46, Nicklaus won his 18th and final professional major at the Masters in 1986. He played the final ten holes, going birdie-birdie-birdie-bogey-birdie-par-eagle-birdie-birdie-par for a 65 that clinched the sixth green jacket of his career. 

Nicklaus’ final PGA Tour victories came at the 1984 Memorial and 1986 Masters. He will round up his career with 73 titles, second only to Sam Snead’s 82 at the time. Nicklaus has since been surpassed by Woods, who now has 79 victories under his name. 

Almost as impressive as his major titles is the fact that he finished second-place 19 times in golf’s biggest events.

As his PGA Tour career comes to a close, another would soon begin as Nicklaus moved on to the Senior PGA Tour (now known as the PGA Tour Champions) amidst a successful business career.

Life After Pro Golf

For most of the 1990s, Nicklaus continued to play in the majors. He finished sixth at the Masters in 1990, and in 1998, he tied for sixth place at the age of 58. These will turn out to be his final top 10 finishes.

After that, the Golden Bear quickly realized that his game was no longer up to par with the new generation of golfers. In 2000, he played in his final U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he won his second U.S. Amateur and third U.S. Open in 1972. Nicklaus also bid farewell to the PGA Championship in 2000, missing the cut by just one stroke. 

Nicklaus played his final Masters and Open tournament at St. Andrews five years later. Nicklaus finished his major championships career by hitting a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th green at the historic Old Course.

At the tail-end of his playing career, Nicklaus worked on expanding his business empire, which includes golf course design, wine, ice cream, golf academies, books, videos, and other products.

Since 1976, Nicklaus has hosted the Memorial Tournament in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. The tournament has become one of the PGA Tour’s major events, raising millions of dollars for the Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Nicklaus’ accomplishments on and off the course have garnered him numerous accolades. President George W. Bush presented Nicklaus the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. He also received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2014. Both of these are the highest civilian honors in the United States.

Playing Style

During his prime, Jack Nicklaus was one of the PGA Tour’s longest and straightest hitters. In 1963, he won the PGA Championship long-drive contest with a shot of 341 yards, 17 inches (312 meters), a record that stood for more than 20 years.

He favored the fade (left-to-right shape) for his ball flight because it let the ball come to a quick stop on hard and fast greens. His fades were capable of reaching long par fours and par fives in two shots.

Nicklaus regarded his longest drive in competition to be on the 15th hole at the 1964 Masters, where he had less than 160 yards left to the 500-yard par five. For his second shot, he played an eight-iron that went slightly over the green.

Although official PGA Tour statistics weren’t recorded until 1980, Nicklaus was consistently the leader in greens hit in regulation during that year, demonstrating excellent mastery of the long and middle irons.

Nicklaus ranked in the top six of this category until 1985, well past his prime. In 1980, at the age of 40, Nicklaus also finished 10th in driving distance and 13th in driving accuracy, resulting in a “Total Driving” composite of 23 – a statistical level not surpassed since by a wide margin. Through 1982, Nicklaus was the undisputed leader in this category.

Nicklaus’ remarkable swing tempo was crucial in his ball-striking ability and overall power. Tom Watson described Nicklaus’ biggest strength as his ability to remain smooth. This trait proved helpful, especially under duress, allowing him to achieve exceptional distance control with his irons.

Golden Bear’s Sticks

Jack Nicklaus won most of his 18 major titles using pure blade irons and persimmon drivers. However, in 2018 at 78 years of age, the Golden Bear’s setup featured a whole lot more forgiveness and technology.

His bag of clubs included the following: 

TaylorMade M3 Fairway Wood

Taylormade TP5 Golf Balls

Callaway GBB Epic Driver 

TaylorMade GAPR MID Golf Club

TaylorMade P-790 Irons 

When asked whether technology has changed golf for the better or worse, Nicklaus said, “I believe we have more good golfers today than ever before. And I believe it has a lot to do with equipment. This enables them to perform different things.”

Golf’s Greatest Winner

Almost every leading golf publication and media organization in the world recognizes Jack Nicklaus as Golfer of the 20th Century or Golfer of the Millennium. Sports Illustrated recognized him as the Individual Male Athlete of the Century, while ESPN named him as part of the 10 Greatest Athletes of the Century. Jack won 120 professional tournaments worldwide during his illustrious career. His record of most majors won still stands — 18 professional major championship titles (six Masters, five PGA Championships, four U.S. Opens, three Open Championships).

Jack Nicklaus is, simply put, the greatest winner in golf history. His track record of achievements and sustained excellence in the game is yet to be matched.

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