It didn’t take long for Nicklaus to be hooked – or for his father to notice. The monthly assessment for Jack’s procurement of range balls caught Charlie’s eye. But the younger Nicklaus clearly had the talent and temperament for the game, plus the ability to absorb Grout’s instruction and execute the fundamentals to quickly become an effective competitive golfer. How quickly? Well, he won the Scioto Juvenile Championship in that first year with a handsome score of 61-60-121 for 18 holes, and he repeated the following year. In 1952, he was the youngest member of the club’s junior league team that went undefeated in 10 matches around the city. He also broke 80 for the first time with a 74.
In 1953, the year he first bettered 70, his accelerating skills were undeniable. He won the Ohio State Junior Championship and the Columbus Junior Match-Play and Stroke-Play Championships in the 13-15-year-old division. Nicklaus also played in his first national championship, the U.S. Junior Amateur at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., advancing to the fourth round. Though he never won the U.S. Junior, Nicklaus more than made up for that later with a USGA ledger that includes a record four U.S. Open titles, two U.S. Amateurs and two U.S. Senior Opens.
The highlight of 1954 was not the Ohio Junior Championship title he won at nearby Brookside Golf & Country Club, but the Scioto Junior Championship. He triumphed in 38 holes over Bill Cowman, and along the way he made his first hole-in-one, on the 135-yard, par-3 17th during their morning round.
“Bill had put his tee shot about 2 feet from the pin, and then I knocked mine in the hole,” Nicklaus recalled. “In the afternoon, Bill again put his tee shot in close and knocked it in for his 2. I remember his father telling him as he walked off the green, ‘See, I told you that if you kept making 2s on this hole you’d win it eventually.’”
Robin Obetz, who played alongside Nicklaus at Scioto from the time of Grout’s first class and who was best man at Jack’s wedding to Ohio State sweetheart Barbara Jean Bash, was asked when he knew that Nicklaus would be a special golfer. His reply was telling. “Jack was the best golfer in Grout’s class,” Obetz began. “He was the best golfer when we were juniors. He was the best golfer in high school. He was the best golfer in college. There never was a time when he wasn’t head and shoulders above everyone else.”
It wasn’t all natural talent. Throughout his teenage years, Nicklaus worked at the game, taking private lessons from Grout, hitting balls in the winter out of a makeshift Quonset hut at Scioto or indoors at Columbus Athletic Club. He did this while also still playing high school basketball (he averaged 18 points per game at forward his senior year while making honorable mention all-Ohio) and baseball. He had given up football, however, at the behest of Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, who had become a family friend.
Nicklaus made his U.S. Amateur debut in 1955 at the Country Club of Virginia. He lost in the first round, but the occasion was memorable for meeting Bob Jones, who was impressed with the youngster’s prodigious power. Jack was one of the few players to reach the par-5 18th hole on the James River Course in two shots. Having witnessed that, Jones asked to meet Jack and his father, who had been a huge fan of the Grand Slam winner since he followed him around Scioto during Jones’ 1926 U.S. Open victory.
Two years later, Nicklaus won the 12th International Jaycees Junior Championship at Ohio State Golf Course, which came with a $1,000 scholarship that he used to attend OSU, which didn’t offer golf scholarships. He also won his second straight Ohio High School individual title on the same OSU Scarlet Course and played in his first U.S. Open at Inverness Club in Toledo, where he missed the cut. But the victory that first put him on the map came in the 1956 Ohio Open at Marietta Country Club, where he closed with 64-72 to beat a field that included a number of professionals, including PGA Tour member Frank Stranahan, a Toledo native.
Sam Snead assisted in the victory, albeit unknowingly. He and Nicklaus were paired together in an exhibition at Urbana Country Club on the Friday of the championship. After a morning round of 70 in Marietta, Nicklaus hopped on a private plane to Urbana, about an hour west of Columbus, to play with the legendary golfer on the nine-hole course where another famous golf icon grew up: course architect Pete Dye. Snead shot 68 while a nervous Jackie Nicklaus held his own with a 72. But during their four-hour encounter, Nicklaus started to emulate Snead’s smooth tempo, and it carried over the next day when he returned to Marietta and fired a 64 that set the tournament record.
When he walked into the Scioto clubhouse to show off his trophy, Grout tried to feign surprise. “Why, Jackie, what have you got there?” But Grout was hardly surprised. It was around this time, Nicklaus wrote in “The Greatest Game of All,” that Grout told him: “I am honestly awed by the shots you can already play at your age. … You’ve not only got natural ability and golf intelligence, but a flair for competition as well.”
What immense promise Nicklaus possessed, he began to fulfill on a much larger scale in 1959. He was selected for his first USA Walker Cup Team, played in Muirfield, Scotland, and then later that year defeated Charlie Coe in the final of the U.S. Amateur Championship at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. Nicklaus exhibited determination and pressure-management by sinking an 8-foot birdie putt on the 36th hole for his 1-up victory against the defending champion.
“I believe our son was born for greatness,” Charlie Nicklaus told his wife Helen over the phone after Jack’s first national championship.
Though Nicklaus had missed the cut by a stroke in his first Masters that year, Jones said of “the Ohio strong boy,” as some newspapers referred to him, “He has the finest potential of any young player in many years.”
The next three years were affirmation of such glowing words. Nicklaus finished runner-up to Arnold Palmer in the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, tied for fourth in the Open the following year at Oakland Hills, and won a second U.S. Amateur title at Pebble Beach, dispatching Dudley Wysong in the final, 8 and 6. Later that fall, on Nov. 9, he declared he was turning professional.
His playoff victory over Palmer in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont was his first of 73 victories as a professional. It was a surprise to few. In the preceding two U.S. Opens, Nicklaus’ combined aggregate score of 566 was the lowest of any player, amateur or professional. Later that summer, Nicklaus and Palmer played an exhibition match at Scioto, which Jack also won, though this time much more easily, being his home course and all.
Fast forward to Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, and Jack Nicklaus is seated in a chair on the practice range at Scioto Country Club, surrounded by family members and old friends. The occasion is the unveiling of a plaque in his honor, recognizing his roots in golf. The plaque reads: “In 1950, Jack Nicklaus hit his first golf shot from this location under the watchful eye of Scioto's PGA Golf Professional, Jack Grout, beginning what would become the greatest career in golf history.”
Yeah, that sounds about right.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.