Big Ten Icons: Jack Nicklaus

He played only two years of varsity golf at Ohio State, but during that time, Jack Nicklaus offered enticing hints of what he eventually would become: the greatest player in the history of his game. During one stretch of his storied amateur career, Nicklaus entered 30 tournaments and won 29 of them, including the 1961 Big Ten (by 16 shots) and NCAA championships for the Buckeyes. He was the first player to win the NCAA individual championship and the U.S. Amateur in the same year, a feat later matched by Phil Mickelson (1990), Tiger Woods (1996) and Ryan Moore (2004).

Nicklaus was 19 when he rolled in a nine-foot birdie putt to beat Charlie Coe on the 36th hole of the 1959 U.S. Amateur, becoming that tournament’s youngest champion in 50 years.

In 1960, Nicklaus, a sophomore, finished second by two shots to Arnold Palmer at the U.S. Open; his 282 score was a record low for an amateur. When he won the U.S. Amateur for a second time in 1961, there were no amateur worlds left to conquer. So he turned pro, and it’s no exaggeration to say Nicklaus revolutionized golf, setting records that might never be approached, let alone broken.

“He plays a game with which I am not familiar,” Bobby Jones, one of golf’s true luminaries, observed while watching Nicklaus win the 1965 Masters.

Nicklaus won 115 tournaments worldwide, including 18 majors: six Masters, four U.S. Opens, three British Opens and five PGA Championships, along with those two U.S. Amateur championships. But even as he was establishing himself as one of his era’s most dominant pro athletes, Columbus-born Jack Nicklaus never lost touch with his OSU roots.

“Since I was a kid growing up, my intention was to go to Ohio State,” he said. “I had a lot of schools around the country talk to me about playing golf, but I told them not to bother—I was going to Ohio State.

“I have a special fondness for collegiate golf, and my experience at Ohio State is something I’ll always cherish.”

Indeed, college golf’s Player of the Year receives the Jack Nicklaus Award, and the Jack Nicklaus Museum occupies a place of honor within the complex of sports facilities on the OSU campus. It’s not only 24,000 square feet of tribute to an amazing career, it’s a symbol of the bond that exists between the university and one of its proudest alums.  A story Nicklaus tells on himself illustrates it further.

“From the time I was six years old until I was 20, I missed one Ohio State home football game,” he said. “When I was 20, I was playing for the Eisenhower Cup in the World Amateur Team Championship at Merion, in Pennsylvania. I could get the Ohio State-Southern Cal game on the radio, so I walked around the course with a radio listening to the game while I played in the tournament.

“I shot 68 that day, and 66-67-68-68 for the tournament. I might have shot another 66 if I hadn’t been carrying the radio around.”

Not that Nicklaus needed the additional two shots. He won medalist honors for the tournament, and his four-round total of 269 on a world-class course shattered Ben Hogan’s tournament scoring record by 18 shots.

Throughout his career, Nicklaus has been accorded numerous honors befitting his place in his game. Sports Illustrated chose him as its individual male athlete of the 20th Century, its athlete of the decade for the 1970s, and its Sportsman of the Year in 1978. He’s in the OSU Hall of Fame, and he was voted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.

But in 2006, the Ohio State University band selected him for an honor that probably means even more to him. On Oct. 28, at the OSU-Minnesota game, Nicklaus dotted the ‘i’ in Script Ohio, joining the late Bob Hope and Woody Hayes as the only non-band members so honored.

“Most people outside Ohio probably don’t understand the significance of this, but I do,” Nicklaus said. “Script Ohio is a big thing. Not just Script Ohio, but Script Ohio by the best damn band in the land.”

Paying tribute a golfer of similar stature.

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