As Colorado celebrates a Century of Golf, the century’s greatest golfer returns to the state that helped shape his career.
Nicklaus at The Broadmoor in 1959 and at Cherry Creek Country Club in 2004.
Call him St. Nicklaus. He has used his gifts as a golfer, architect, businessman and humanitarian to bring joy to the world.
And he will bring that joy to Colorado Springs November 14. How fitting is it that the finest golfer of the last 100 years comes to The Broadmoor for the Colorado Golf Foundation’s Century of Golf Gala?
After all, while Jack Nicklaus’s legend began in Upper Arlington, Ohio, where by age 13 he sported a plus-3 handicap at Scioto Country Club, his competitive legacy began five years later at The Broadmoor when he curled in an eight-foot birdie putt on the 36th hole to win the 1959 U.S. Amateur.
“That putt gave me confidence,” he says today. “Making that putt proved to me that I had the stuff to be able to do what I needed to do under pressure in order to win something significant. I still believe that was probably the most important putt I made in my life. All of a sudden I had to make a putt under pressure to win my first major championship—which the U.S Amateur was at the time. It added to the self-belief that I needed as a 19-year-old. That putt and that victory together served as the springboard to the rest of my career.”
Nicklaus (left) and Charlie Coe after the 1959 U.S. Amateur at The Broadmoor (courtesy USGA)
With that putt he defeated the defending U.S. Amateur champion, Charlie Coe, who would be his captain and teammate at that year’s Walker Cup competition across the pond at Muirfield, where the U.S. team triumphed. On that same links seven years later, Nicklaus would win the first of his three Open Championships and the sixth of his record 18 majors.
That total would reach 20 if you include the U.S. Amateurs he won at The Broadmoor in ‘59 and at Pebble Beach in ’61. He triumphed in eight senior majors, too. And then there are the nearly 400 courses he’s designed around the world, including 13 in Colorado—the fourth highest total of the 38 states in which he’s worked. Only Florida, California and Arizona have more.
The Golden Bear clearly adores the Centennial State. That putt at The Broadmoor is one reason, but what happened the following June at the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club also played a seminal role.
Already competing in his fourth U.S. Open, the 20-year-old Nicklaus led the event by two strokes after 66 holes, but went three over on the final six to finish two behind Arnold Palmer. As Ben Hogan famously said of Nicklaus, “I played 36 holes today with a kid who, if he had a brain in his head, should have won this thing by ten strokes.”
Palmer (left) savors his victory over the 20-year-old Nicklaus in the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills (courtesy USGA).
“I think not winning that U.S. Open may have been the best thing that ever happened to me,” Nicklaus says with a smile. “Had I won, I would have been a 20-year-old kid with a head about the size of the moon—or the size of Colorado—and I would have had a hard time reaching my ears. I was in the growing stages of my life and my career, and although it was a great experience it taught me many lessons. One was that other people have trouble coming down the stretch just as I did—everybody else is nervous and trying to win, too. I had to learn to be composed and be able to play within my own game.”
Immediately after that defeat, the Ohio State star drove to The Broadmoor for the NCAA Championships. “I lost to Stanford’s Steve Smith in the quarterfinals, 4 and 3,” he remembers correctly. This November will be his first time back at The Broadmoor.
Although Nicklaus would also lose the 1972 Open at Muirfield, the ancient course on which he won the ‘66 Open inspired the name of his first “signature” golf course nine miles northwest of his Ohio hometown. As any PGA Tour fan knows, Muirfield Village Golf Club, which opened 1974, has annually hosted The Memorial Tournament, with its host/founder/architect winning twice.
What golf fans might not know is that when he was first recruiting members for Muirfield, Nicklaus invited Jack Vickers and his sons to play the course. Fifteen years Vickers’ junior, Nicklaus and the future founder of Castle Pines Golf Club had become friendly at the 1958 Trans-Mississippi Amateur at Prairie Dunes Golf Club, which the 18-year-old Nicklaus won—and would win again the following year.
Despite making an ace on hole 16, Vickers didn’t join Muirfield Village. But he did take notice of the course and how its architect had clearly approached the design with the same laser focus and uncompromising commitment to excellence that defined his winning style of play.
By the late 1970s, with Muirfield entrenching itself on the lists of top U.S. courses and Nicklaus continuing to rack up major victories, Vickers decided the time had come to build Castle Pines Golf Club. He wanted only one man to execute his vision. “But I’m a flatlander,” Nicklaus jokingly remembers responding before agreeing to see the rugged, densely tree-covered site.
Nicklaus and Jack Vickers during the construction of Castle Pines Golf Club in 1981 (courtesy of Castle Pines Golf Club).
“Jack walked every foot of it before we began,” Vickers said of the first visit. “We helicoptered up and down, too… The thing I like most of all about Jack is that he is not a ‘yes’ man. He would listen to me and tell me if he thought I was wrong, and tell me why. And if he thought I was right, he was perfectly willing to make changes.”
“The mutual respect they have just exudes when they’re together,” says Castle Pines Golf Club Vice President and General Manager Keith Schneider, who readily admits, “I wouldn’t be here today if not for Jack Nicklaus.”
Hired at Muirfield Village when it opened, Schneider worked his way up to become a Class A PGA Professional. In 1981 Nicklaus pulled aside the young pro and told him the grass at Castle Pines had come in early and asked if he could go and get things ready. “I had three weeks before the first round, October 1, 1981,” Schneider says.
“So not only did you not join Muirfield,” Nicklaus jokingly said in a video for Vickers’ 90th birthday fête in August, “I loaned you my junior pro and you kept him for 35 years!”
Castle Pines Golf Club, Hole 12 (Jim Mandeville/Nicklaus Design)
Castle Pines hosted The International from 1986 to 2006, with its architect finishing as high as sixth in 1989, at the age of 49. Three years earlier, Nicklaus had become the oldest player ever to win the Masters, blistering Sunday’s back nine in 30 en route to his 18th and final major victory.
On the wall of Schneider’s office hangs a photo from that historic win. It shows Nicklaus hitting a tee shot. “He got that driver from me,” Schneider says. “Back in ’84, he saw I had a MacGregor Eye-O-Matic driver in my bag. A member at Muirfield had given it to me. It had ‘Jack Nicklaus’ stamped on the bottom. ‘Keith,’ Jack said, ‘this is my driver.’ He was half-kidding, but apparently his driver had a small crack, so I gave him mine. Now it’s hanging in the Jack Nicklaus Museum on the Ohio State campus.”
Nicklaus, immortalized in bronze at Castle Pines Golf Club's Founders Park (left) and in the men's locker room (Jim Mandeville/Nicklaus Design).
Not only does Columbus have a Jack Nicklaus Museum, but this year the USGA dedicated a room at its Far Hills museum to him and named the award given to the U.S. Open winner the Jack Nicklaus Medal. He has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. In 1975, the USGA bestowed upon him its highest honor, the Bob Jones Award, in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf.
Significantly, Barbara Nicklaus, his wife of 55 years, received the same award during this year’s U.S. Open. “Her dedication to support players and spouses, and advocacy for multiple causes, are worthy of our highest honor,” USGA President Thomas J. O’Toole Jr. said in a statement. She currently chairs the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, which has raised more than $32 million since its 2004 inception.
Barbara and Jack Nicklaus on a family ski vacation in Beaver Creek in 2005 (photograph courtesy of Chris Lai).
“Barbara, their five sprouts and 22 grandchildren are the inspiration that kept Jack on course to conquer every mountain he challenged,” says journalist Kaye Kessler, who first covered the Golden Bear when he was a 10-year-old cub at Scioto. “She’s the queen of all the wives of the world’s athletes, and he’s the most accessible, most affable athlete I’ve ever known.”
That affability, Schneider says, belies a hardwired determination to win. “‘Schneids, I have no fear,’” he remembers his boss at Muirfield saying. “‘Not towards any competitor or golf course. I respect both and they can beat me but I won’t let them win.’ He was so focused on what he was doing, he never let anything else get into his mind.”
By July 1993, the 53-year-old Nicklaus had on his mind the U.S. Senior Open at Denver’s Cherry Hills Country Club, where he’d not only fallen short in 1960 but also at the 1978 U.S. Open (T6) and the 1985 PGA (T32).
Up two shots on Tom Weiskopf going into the 72nd hole of the ’93 Senior Open, Nicklaus faced a downhill 45-foot birdie putt.
“I was standing with Tom,” remembers Kessler. “I asked him if he thought Jack might three-putt to force a playoff. ‘Have you ever seen Nicklaus three-putt when two would win?’ he replied without batting an eye. Jack promptly arced a rainbow putt that stopped four feet above the pin—and then calmly sank the four-footer to win.”
Nicklaus with the 1993 U.S. Senior Open trophy at Cherry Hills Country Club (courtesy Cherry Hills)
The victory marked Nicklaus’ last victory in Colorado. But his career as an architect, has brought him back dozens of times.
He most recently returned in June to collaborate again with Vickers on the course he designed 35 years ago.
“They were going to redo the greens, so we went to see if there was anything we could do to improve the course,” Nicklaus says before going into great detail on the changes that will mainly affect seven holes—5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13 and 16. Modifications will include the construction of entirely new green complexes on 5, 8 and 16; the addition and elimination of numerous bunkers; the re-contouring of slopes surrounding the greens; and the addition of cascading ponds on hole 16 similar to those on 11. The 16th will also see its tips moved back to 225 yards from 204.
The Jacks, Vickers and Nicklaus, at Castle Pines Golf Club in June (photograph by Jim Mandeville/Nicklaus Design)
Course design represents only part of the multimillion-dollar Nicklaus empire, which includes multiple services, projects and charitable initiatives.
At 75, Nicklaus still crisscrosses the world. During the November 14 gala, the Golf Channel’s Tim Rosaforte will interview him. Six Colorado People of the Century will also be honored that evening—Judy Bell, Hale Irwin, Vic Kline, Dennis Lyon, Barbara McIntire and Will Nicholson.
“I am very flattered Will and the people of the Colorado Golf Association wanted me to be there,” Nicklaus says of the invitation he received from Nicholson, the former USGA president and chairman of the Masters Competition Committee.
“I have a long and special history with the state of Colorado, and a lot of wonderful memories I cherish,” Nicklaus continues. “Let’s hope this event simply creates one more special memory.”
It certainly will create one for all in attendance. They’ll get to savor the transcendent presence of not only the greatest golfer of the last 100 years, but also one of its finest gentlemen.
For information on the Century of Golf Gala, visit coloradogolf.org/foundation/gala.php.