Jack Jack Nicklaus turns 80: How golf’s Golden Bear made his first claim for greatness under the eyes of Hogan

Jack Nicklaus was still an amateur at the 1960 U.S. Open, but he finished second at Cherry Hills and almost won the title as a 20-year-old.

Jack Nicklaus had his life mapped out by the end of 1959.

Proposing to his girlfriend, nursing student and fellow Ohio State undergraduate Barbara Bash, over Christmas, the 19-year-old Nicklaus saw a clear vision of the future.

He would be, if all went to plan, a mighty fine golfer but an even better insurance salesman.

The teenage years had treated Nicklaus well. He acquired the golfing fundamentals under Jack Grout’s instruction at Scioto Country Club and became a serial amateur champion, all while demonstrating diligence in his studies and a precocious talent for earning big bucks.

The idea was that he and Barbara would settle down, live a life of contentment together and want for nothing, and Jack would always have his golf. The American dream.

Never mind winning a record 18 majors; merely playing in that many was still fanciful.

Nicklaus, who turns 80 this week, was a college kid with a winning golf game, a head for figures and an effortless, neighbourly charm. Some combination.

Today he is one of the greatest and wealthiest sports stars in history.

This is the story of the 1960 U.S. Open, and how a day in Ben Hogan’s company changed young Jack’s life.

INSURANCE THE BEST POLICY?

Already the U.S. Amateur champion at the dawn of the sixties, Nicklaus realised he had a serious talent that could worry the best professionals, but was there sufficient financial incentive to go into golf full-time?

He was not so sure. Insurance paid well, and a new decade promised new money-making opportunities.

“I had probably three jobs that I was working at the same time,” Nicklaus recalled.

“I was working for Ohio State Life Insurance Company, I was working for Parker and Co, which is a brokerage firm out of New York, and I was actually working for a slack company. As I travelled I did some slack promotion, well within amateur regulations.

“I was making close to about $30,000 a year. That’s pretty good for a 20‑year‑old. Pretty darned good back in 1960. And I thought about playing the Tour, [but] you had to be probably in the top five to be making $30,000 a year.”

Nicklaus had played on a winning Walker Cup team at Muirfield and was voted the world’s leading amateur by Golf Digest magazine before turning 20.

THE WEEK WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED

Nicklaus’ golf life was transformed at the 1960 U.S. Open, specifically on the Saturday, the closing day of the tournament, when the youngster, still devoted to the unpaid ranks, was paired with the great Ben Hogan for the final 36 holes.

Over back-to-back circuits of the Cherry Hills course, set within a luxury country club in Denver’s suburbs, Nicklaus later admitted: “I learned how to play golf.”

Dad Charlie broke the news to young Jack that he would be playing alongside the 47-year-old Hogan, a nine-time major champion.

“It’s in my personal scrapbook when my dad came in and said, ‘Guess who you’re playing the last two rounds with’,” Nicklaus said.

“He says, ‘Hogan’. It was like, you know, I’m going to get a chance to play with Ben Hogan.”

Wherever Nicklaus goes today, there is a clamour for stories about his early days.

Put him in a media room and a half hour of wisdom and delicious anecdotes will spill out. Pure manna for golf reporters.

The 1960 U.S. Open has been raked over as often as the Cherry Hills bunkers. Nicklaus does not seem to mind. He knows its relevance, enjoys the reverance.

A COLLISION OF GREATS – PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

Nicklaus, Hogan and Masters champion Arnold Palmer were firmly in the U.S. Open title mix that year, a coming together of generations old and new, with Palmer surging into title contention after a surge of six birdies in his first seven holes of that final round. Palmer had ominously driven the green at the par-four first.

Nicklaus, despite his amateur status, nevertheless led as he reached the turn.

Put succinctly, Nicklaus’ putter went stone cold and he fluffed that chance of glory, while playing partner Hogan blew up on the 35th and 36th holes of the day, a bogey and a triple from the veteran handing victory to Palmer, whose six-under-par 65 took him from seven shots back at the start of the round to first place, four under for the tournament.

While Nicklaus placed second, Hogan trailed home tied for ninth, cursing his costly drive into water at the last. Nicklaus, however, was tracking his playing partner’s every shot.

“The first time he missed a green was the 35th hole we played,” Nicklaus said. “He hit the ball in the fairway, he managed his game. He played little hooks, little slices, little short slots and he played conservative shots. And he made some putts and missed a lot putts. Hogan stood over a putt for about an hour in those days.

“They talk about all the putts he missed but he holed a ton of putts. He was my kind of guy to play with. We walked down the fairway; pleasantries. When you hit a good shot, if he said it was a good shot, you knew darned well it was a good shot.

“And if you didn’t hit a good shot, you weren’t expecting to hear anything, which you didn’t.”

“IF HE HAD A BRAIN IN HIS HEAD…”

Nicklaus has often quibbled with a quote attributed to Hogan from Cherry Hills, with Hogan said to have told US sports writer Dan Jenkins: “I played with a kid today who would have won by 10 strokes if he knew what he was doing.”

A conversation with Jenkins, who died last year, set the record straight for Nicklaus – if not entirely favourably for golf’s future ‘Golden Bear’.

According to Nicklaus, Jenkins revealed how Hogan actually said he partnered a player “who if he had a brain in his head, would have won by 10 strokes”.

Nicklaus offers a similarly self-flagellating take of what happened over those closing holes, as the winning line came into view.

“I blew it,” he said. “I had the tournament reasonably well in hand if I had known how to play.

“I remember walking off the 12th green. I looked at the leaderboard, and there was one 5 on the board [indicating a score of five under par] and that was me.

“I three-putted 13, 14. And after I look at the leaderboard, ‘Nice going, Jack’. Then I miss a three-footer at 16, and about an eight-footer at 17 and bogey 18 to lose that golf tournament. That’s a pretty poor finish. You learn from that.”

Nicklaus conceded he “didn’t know how to win at 20 years old, not against the guys”. That changed soon enough.

“THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME”

Marrying Barbara a month after his Cherry Hills exploits, Nicklaus remained in the amateur ranks, making his money in the ‘real world’.

Eventually, having landed his second U.S. Amateur title, he turned professional in November 1961.

“I decided I really didn’t care about being the best insurance salesman,” Nicklaus said. “I really wanted to be a guy who could be the best at playing golf.

“And the only way to do that is to play against the best. And so that was why I turned pro.”

There was no standing on ceremony either once that status was acquired.

His maiden major triumph came when Oakmont hosted the U.S. Open in 1962, beating Palmer in a play-off. The Masters and US PGA titles followed in 1963, and by 1964, Nicklaus was the leading money-winner on the PGA Tour, trouncing what he might have earned with a sharp suit, fedora and briefcase.

Nicklaus will be forever associated with Cherry Hills, and the tournament where he “proceeded to fall apart like a three-dollar suitcase”.

Now that he has turned 80, with Hogan long gone and Palmer having passed on to life’s 19th hole more than three years ago, it falls to Nicklaus to recount the stories of yesteryear.

All being even, he has not told his last tale of Cherry Hills. This story is assembled from hour after hour of Nicklaus reminiscing with golf’s press pack.

“I look back on it, and I say, you know, I would have loved to have won that tournament,” Nicklaus said. “But maybe the best thing that ever happened to me was the learning experience that I had from it.

“Did it destroy my life? No. I learned from it. I put what I learned there to use. Did I do it again? Sure. But did I do it to the same degree? No.”

THROW A RIGHT ONCE YOU CAN SMELL MONEY

Leaving Denver today on Interstate 25 – the Valley Highway – you can leave the five-lane carriageway by Veterans Park and begin the South University Boulevard approach to Cherry Hills Country Club.

An urban, gridded landscape – studentville around the University of Denver, block after block of modern apartments, a Wendy’s burger joint – gives way after a couple of miles to a greener, tree-lined avenue, and a sprawl of gated communities, a millionaire’s paradise.

Peyton Manning reputedly calls this home. David Duval has lived in a mansion practically overlooking the course.

Once you can positively smell money, throwing a right turn at a barely conspicuous but traffic-lighted junction reveals the country club, its mock-tudor clubhouse soon coming into view.

Behind that members’ sanctuary, its eight tennis courts and a huge swimming pool, lies a golf course steeped in history.

This is not the course that Jack built – even though today there are over 400 Nicklaus-designed courses across the world.

But it is where the Nicklaus legend was born, perhaps the key stepping stone towards insurance’s temporary claim becoming golf’s greatest fixed asset.

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