Jack Nicklaus arrived at Pebble Beach for the 1961 U.S. Amateur already the toast of the golf world. He was a mere 21 years old, but had thighs like redwood trunks and could hit the ball unprecedented distances with his persimmon driver. Two years earlier, he had won the Amateur—which in those days was still one of the game’s marquee events—and at the 1960 U.S. Open was part of an epic multi-generational battle with Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan.
As Dan Jenkins later wrote in Sports Illustrated, “On that afternoon, in the span of just 18 holes, we witnessed the arrival of Nicklaus, the coronation of Palmer and the end of Hogan.”
Most contemporary golf fans recall only that Palmer birdied six of the first seven holes to steal his only victory in a tournament that serially tormented him. But Hogan, at 47, was tied for the lead playing the 71st hole when he dunked a 50-yard pitch into a pond fronting the green.
“I guess they’ll say I lost it,” Hogan lamented afterward. “Well, one more foot and the wedge on 17 would have been perfect. But I’ll tell you something. I played 36 holes today with a kid who should have won this Open by 10 shots.”
With that quote, the legend of Nicklaus was born, even as he remained an undergrad at Ohio State, in his hometown of Columbus. If he was feeling any pressure at Pebble Beach it didn’t show—Big Jack tore through the Amateur bracket and won the final match in a blowout, 8 & 6. An enduring romance was born.
“It was love at first sight,” he says. Ever since, Nicklaus has called Pebble Beach his favorite golf course in the world. His length allowed him to exploit the do-or-die par-5s and his pinpoint accuracy with his irons gave Nicklaus a significant advantage coming into the tiny, fraught greens. And this Midwestern boy with a crew cut could never get over all that coastal beauty.
Nicklaus turned pro in the months after the Amateur and spent the next decade refashioning the game in his image. By the time he returned to Pebble Beach in 1972, for the grand old links’ first U.S. Open, Nicklaus had won two PGA Championships, two British Opens, two U.S. Opens and, just a couple months earlier, his fourth Masters. Throw in his two U.S. Amateurs and he had a dozen major championship victories, one less than his boyhood hero, Bobby Jones.
The winner of three Crosby Clambakes, Nicklaus knew that Pebble Beach represented his best opportunity yet to get halfway to the Grand Slam, Jones’ signature achievement. Big Jack arrived on the Monterey Peninsula a week early and prepared like a man driven by ghosts, which he was.
The USGA presented Pebble Beach with skinny fairways and gnarly rough, which suited Nicklaus; with his upright swing and his brute strength he could slash through the long grass like no one else. He held at least a piece of the lead each of the first three rounds. On Sunday, Nicklaus methodically built his lead, arriving on the 10th tee four shots clear of the field.
But even this great champion could feel the weight of history. He promptly sliced his tee shot onto Carmel Beach and made double bogey. On the twelfth hole, Nicklaus rattled in an 8-footer to save bogey. The tournament was still hanging in the balance when he came to the par-3 17th hole, which was playing into a fierce breeze.
“He stood there for a moment, trying to stare down the wind, Bobby Jones, the Open, the Slam and none other than Bruce Crampton, who was still lurking,” Jenkins would write. “And then he hit a shot that made him look like a fighter who didn’t want to win on points; he wanted a knockout. He hit the damnedest one-iron in history and nearly made a hole-in-one as the ball screamed into the gale, cleared the ghastly bunker fronting the green, crashed down right at the flagstick and simply sat there, two inches from the cup—and two championships away from what could be one of the most astounding accomplishments in the annals of game playing.”
The following month, Nicklaus made a spirited run at the British Open but finished one agonizing stroke behind Lee Trevino, who chipped-in on the 71st hole, a shot that haunts Nicklaus to this day.
Still, he would go on to win eight more major championships, a standard of excellence that only gets more relevant as Tiger Woods edges closer to Big Jack’s records. Woods may go down as the greatest golfer of all time, but Nicklaus will always be the greatest champion. He redefined our notion of what is possible in the sport and along the way, became a living embodiment of golf’s values.
“He’s the greatest winner and the greatest loser we’ll ever have,” says Paul Azinger, a nod to Nicklaus’ humility in victory and graciousness in defeat. That 1-iron is the enduring image of Nicklaus the golfer, but who is he is as a man is best captured by his embrace of Tom Watson after being beaten in the Duel in the Sun, or the rueful greeting he gave Watson at the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, after he chipped-in on the 71st hole to take the trophy out of Nicklaus’ hands.
“You got me again, you little S.O.B.,” he said. Nicklaus adds, “That’s what you’re supposed to do. You go out and shake the man’s hand and say, ‘Well done. Nice going.'”
Nicklaus’ last victory was one for the ages, when he took the 1986 Masters at 46. (Tiger Woods’ recent win there, at 43, stirred those wonderful old memories.) Rather than spend his dotage as a ceremonial golfer, he has instead built an empire. Nicklaus has designed some 400 golf courses, including Harbour Town (with Pete Dye), Muirfield Village, Shoal Creek, Glen Abbey, Castle Pines, Valhalla, Bear’s Club, Sebonack (with Tom Doak), Cabo Del Sol, and Pasadera in Monterey, Calif.
Nicklaus’ designs have hosted Ryder Cups, PGA Championships, and numerous other events. Every May, at Muirfield Village in Columbus, he is the master of ceremonies of the Memorial Tournament, one of the best events on the PGA Tour schedule. As the name suggests, the Memorial is dedicated to keeping alive the memory of important figures in the game’s history. It should come as no surprise that Bobby Jones was the honoree at the inaugural tournament in 1976.
Nicklaus says his father “kind of fell in love” with Jones watching him win the 1926 U.S. Open at Scioto Country Club in Columbus. When Jack was competing in the U.S. Amateur as a 15 year old, his father convinced Jones to come out and watch the boy wonder play.
As Nicklaus recounted during a press conference at this year’s Masters, “I kept looking for Bob Jones, and I was playing Bob Gardner, who was a pretty darned good player. I had him 1‑down after nine holes, and all of a sudden, here comes this cart down the 10th fairway, and here comes Bob Jones. I went bogey, bogey, double-bogey, lost all three holes. Jones turned to my dad, he says, ‘Charlie, I don’t think I’m doing Jack much good out here.’ I ended up losing the match 1‑down.”
Nicklaus has dabbled in everything from wine to ice cream, lemonade to sports drinks, plus the expected golf clubs, balls and apparel. But as a salesman he has proven most effective in raising money, to the tune of more than $100 million for the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation. The Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, is one of the leading pediatric hospitals in the country.
It makes sense that a doting grandfather of 22—including Nick O’Leary, a tight end for the Miami Dolphins—cares so deeply about the well-being of children.
“I’ve been given so much in my life, it’s a great joy to be able to give back,” says Nicklaus, 79.
He is giving still. This U.S. Open is the perfect time to reflect on and appreciate this great champion. Pebble Beach and Jack Nicklaus—two iconic names in golf, each of which has elevated the other.
The 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach takes place June 10-16. For more information, go to www.pebblebeach.com.