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Jack Nicklaus: Dominance and Design

Jack Nicklaus, often referred to by his nickname; The Golden Bear, is certainly a familiar name in the game of golf. His reach and legacy in the sport are one of the most omnipresent in history. Golf fans all over the world know how dominant Nicklaus was during his professional career, but many newer fans may not know to what extent. Many more may not know that his influence goes beyond competition and extends to leaving a mark on golf that will last for decades to come. His dominance during his tenure in the PGA cemented Nicklaus as one of the greats, but his efforts in golf course design are almost equally impressive. Many courses featured on the PGA Tour and across the world are a Nicklaus design, including his signature course at Muirfield. His keen eye and philosophy for course design led Jack and his company to construct over 425 golf courses in 45 countries across the globe. His achievements on tour and in the design world, paired with his unmatched sportsmanship and love for the game leave Nicklaus in a league of his own when it comes to golf icons.


Nicklaus’ early career set a solid precedent for his reign in the PGA. Nicklaus began playing golf at age 10, way back in 1950. Just three years later, he qualified for his first national tournament, the U.S. Junior Amateur. Two years following this, Jack qualified for his first U.S. Amateur and ended up winning the Ohio Open at age 16, with the field consisting of many professional players. While Jack was already starting to find some success in golf, he enrolled in pharmacy at Ohio State, as his initial plan was to become a pharmacist like his father. However, in that same year, Nicklaus would compete in his first of 44 straight U.S. Open tournaments. Nearing the end of the decade the Golden Bear would really kick off his career with his first of two wins at the U.S. Amateur, gaining him a decent amount of national attention and making his professional career in golf more of a clear path forward. While the 50’s were a great start for Nicklaus, this decade pales in comparison to the next.


1960 saw Nicklaus start the decade off with a bang. In a tournament some still consider the greatest major championship ever played, Nicklaus played the last two rounds alongside another legend, Ben Hogan. While this was an honor for the young amateur, the real competition was with Arnold Palmer, with whom he was neck-and-neck going into Sunday. While Jack put up a great score over the weekend, Palmer shot an incredible 65, leaving the Golden Bear in second by just two strokes. The intensity of the round combined with the formidable performance by Nicklaus gained him a lot of national press and even saw Jack featured on the cover of Time magazine. In 1961 Jack became the first person to win both the U.S. Amateur and the NCAA individual title in the same year and in ’62, with a number of wins already to his name, Nicklaus would begin his professional career.


His first win as a professional would be the U.S. Open at Oakmont. This victory was not only substantial as it was a major title but also due to Nicklaus getting revenge on Palmer in his own backyard. The tournament would bolster the confidence of the still young golfer, and lead The Golden Bear to an incredible run of major championships that would see him earn his moniker. Jack would win his first Masters in 1963 by one stroke. While winning the Masters is accomplishment enough, Nicklaus would win again in ’65, this time by nine strokes, setting a record that would remain until Tiger Woods won by 12 strokes in 1997. Following his second Master’s victory, Nicklaus would win a claret jug at Muirfield and complete a career Grand Slam by the age of 26. This would be the first of three career Grand Slams Nicklaus would achieve. By the end of the decade, Nicklaus would clock 7 major titles, 30 PGA Tour titles, and 118 top ten finishes in 186 starts. Quite the resume for the legend already, but he was not done there.


The 70’s would be Jack’s most decorated decade. For most, one decade of dominance would already be more than enough for a solid career in golf, not for Jack Nicklaus. While his wins were becoming a little more sparce by the end of the previous decade, he would bounce back at Baltusrol in 1970, winning his first major championship (U.S. Open) since 1967. The following year he would win the PGA Championship and become the only person (until Woods) to win multiple career Grand Slams. The Golden Bear got close to achieving a true Grand Slam twice in the 70’s but would fall just short both times. The most frustrating was the loss to Lee Trevino at The Open, losing by a single stroke on the final day of competition. In the decade that saw Nicklaus win 8 major championships, 38 tour wins, and 119 top ten finishes in 171 starts, he would cap it all off by winning another claret jug and earning his third career Grand Slam.


While the 1980’s were not short of victories for the Golden Bear and saw him become the only player to win the U.S. Open in three different decades, his career in the PGA did start to decline, and eventually he would move onto the Senior PGA Tour. By this point, Nicklaus would be a household name and a golf icon to look up to. Many people now modeled their game after his own in hopes of one day becoming as dominant and successful as Jack. His Senior Tour run was also most impressive, having almost as much dominance as he did in the PGA. While Jack’s achievements as a pro golfer already cement his status as a legend, his contributions to the game go beyond his victories on tour.


Jack Nicklaus is also one of the most legendary course design experts in history. Learning from the renowned Pete Dye, Nicklaus would bring him along to help with one of his first design projects, crafting Harbor Town on Hilton Head. While they had different design ideas when it came to fixtures like hazard placement, the two would learn a lot from each other and ended up with a unique and oddly shorter (by tour standards) design for Harbor Town. The economic boom of the 80’s would further bolster Nicklaus’ opportunities, allowing him to begin building courses around the globe. Some of his best work was done in Pacific Asia, like that of Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club in China. Golf.com writer Ran Morrissett, who has played this course over 40 times, had this to say, “I was particularly captivated by his work in China…The routing remains some of the best sidehill architecture I’ve ever seen.”


What makes a Nicklaus design so captivating? With Jack being a master tactician on the golf course, it’s no surprise he applied the same level of detail to his design philosophy. Jack’s understanding of the game lends to flexibility for both experienced and casual golfers. One of the key reasons Nicklaus Design courses are appreciated as heavily as they are is due to Jack and his team being able to craft holes that have multiple angles of attack and bailouts. You’ll often find that playing one of his courses leaves a lot to the imagination of how exactly to approach each hole. While there are harsh hazards and plenty of twists and turns to each unique design, all skill levels can maneuver through a Nicklaus course. As with the opening of his efforts at The Bear’s Club in 2000, Jack had this to say in an interview several years later “The Bear’s Club is a strong golf course with 25 tour players…but the members love it. it has a bailout on every hole. That’s the evolution of my design.”


Perhaps most legendary among his designs are his efforts at Muirfield. While Jack was able to craft the original design and open it back in 1974, making for a challenging path to the claret jug, his recent redesign may be his magnum opus. Making mostly minor changes here and there, as the design is considered a classic, as well as adjustments to the greens to increase movement and unpredictability, it moved ever closer to the exact picture Nicklaus had in his head. While Jack is older and moving into the retirement stage of his life, his son Jack Nicklaus II will be taking over the business. This adds confidence that in his father’s absence, the company is left in the best hands with Nicklaus II growing up learning everything from his dad. Nicklaus’ legacy is cemented in professional golf and his mark on competition will be looked at for decades to come. However, the reach and scope of Nicklaus’ effect on the industry at large is almost immeasurable. His astounding 70+ tour victories, 18 of which being majors, showcase the dominance Jack was able to achieve during his career in the PGA. Designing and building more than 425 golf courses in 45 countries displays the expertise and intangibility of his vision for the game and leave The Golden Bear in a unique position as one of the most well-rounded and awe-inspiring legends the game has ever seen.