U.S. SENIOR OPEN
Gary Nicklaus Taking the Fifth Over Famous Dad Jack June 24, 2019 | South Bend, Ind. By Dave Shedloski

Gary Nicklaus, seen here chatting with dad, Jack, at the 2018 U.S. Amateur, is competing in his first U.S. Senior Open. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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When Gary Nicklaus embarks on his opening round Thursday in the 40th U.S. Senior Open, he’ll attain a distinction that his famous father never realized. This will be the fifth different USGA championship in which the younger Nicklaus has competed. His father, Jack, the eight-time USGA champion, played in four.

“I was thinking about that the other day,” said Gary, 50, who qualified for this championship by earning one of two available spots at the sectional qualifier in Jupiter, Fla. “You know, that’s pretty cool. How many other people have played in five USGA tournaments? I know I’m not breaking any record or any of my dad’s records, but it’s a nice thought to do something my dad didn’t do.”

Here’s another thing his father didn’t do – win the U.S. Senior Open in his first try. Jack captured the first of his two titles in his second start, in 1991. So that’s only further motivation for the second-youngest of the five Nicklaus children. Not that he needs it.

“Ultimately, yeah, the goal is to win the golf tournament,” Gary said. 

Just 10 months ago, Nicklaus played in the U.S. Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach Golf Links. He missed the cut for match play, but had a week to remember as his parents watched him compete at the famed venue. As these things go, it’s difficult to play in a USGA event and not find a connection to his father, the legendary Golden Bear, who won his second U.S. Amateur title in 1961 and his third of a record-tying four U.S. Open titles in 1972 at Pebble Beach.

Like his father, Gary also played in the U.S. Junior Amateur. Last October, he made what likely was his final appearance in the amateur ranks at the U.S. Mid-Amateur – an event the elder Nicklaus, 79, never played (the event wasn’t started until 1981, a year after Jack won his fourth U.S. Open).

Gary Nicklaus celebrated his 50th birthday in January and turned professional for a second time, having turned pro after matriculating from Ohio State University. He was a member of the PGA Tour from 2000-03, with his best finish coming in the 2000 BellSouth Classic, where he finished second after losing to Phil Mickelson in a sudden-death playoff.

His more recent playoff foray went better. At the U.S. Senior Open sectional qualifier on June 7, Nicklaus beat Don Bell and former tour player and caddie Lance Ten Broeck on the first extra hole at his home course, the Bear’s Club. Nicklaus had to birdie the final two holes for a 2-under 70 to get into the playoff.

“It was nice to hit the shots I needed to hit under pressure,” said Nicklaus, who arrived at the Warren Course at Notre Dame on Friday to start his preparations.

Gary Nicklaus is trying to accomplish something Jack never did: win the U.S. Senior Open in his first appearance. (USGA/Chris Keane) 

Nicklaus begins the championship at 2:50 p.m. EDT with Willie Wood and Dick Mast. He’ll have his son, Gary Jr., who goes by "GT," on the bag, just as he did in the sectional qualifier.

GT is not a stranger to big stages. He has partnered with his grandfather in the PNC Father-Son Challenge, and last year he caddied for his grandfather in the Masters Par-3 Contest, an occasion that resulted in one of the most memorable moments for the Nicklaus family at Augusta National Golf Club – even with Jack having won a record six green jackets among his 18 professional major titles. On the ninth hole, Jack asked GT if he wanted to hit a tee shot, and then told his grandson he was going to make an ace. Which the youngster did, it was captured on live television.

GT won’t be able to hit any shots for his father, obviously, prompting Gary to reply with a chuckle, “Yeah, too bad, because he’d probably make another hole-in-one.”

With no status on the PGA Tour Champions, Nicklaus has played in just three events this year on sponsor exemptions. He has been encouraged by his play, highlighted by a 5-under 67 in his debut in the Oasis Championship in early February in Boca Raton, Fla. He considers himself not necessarily a better player than he was when competing on the PGA Tour, but he is a more complete player.

“I didn’t play golf for four years,” said Nicklaus, who became a reinstated amateur in 2007. “When I turned professional out of college and traveled the world competing, it was just golf, golf, golf all the time. You never get to step away and look at it from a distance. When I quit playing on tour, I quit golf for four years, and when I came back, the game was easier for me because I think my brain had a chance to process how the game is supposed to be played. Things weren’t as complicated as I was making them when I was playing for a living and doing it every week.

“I may not be as sharp as I was before with parts of my game, but overall I am way more consistent. My ball striking is good because my swing is more simple and on plane.”

Equally simple is the goal. Here Nicklaus takes a cue not only from his dad, but also from two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, whom Gary heard recently explaining that he only put himself in position to win when he thought about winning as opposed to making cuts or trying to get a top-10 finish.

“That says a lot about the mindset that you need to have, that if you think about trying to win, lo and behold, you’re going to maybe give yourself a chance to win,” Nicklaus said. “If you don’t come in here with the goal to win, then you aren’t going to win. So, yeah, the goal is to win.

“But aside from that,” he added. “I want to have a great experience with my son. I want to walk away from here knowing I gave it my best effort, and we’ll see where it goes. I’m excited for the opportunity.”

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer whose work appears regularly on USGA digital channels.