Babineau: To the champion, a Nicklaus Medal
SAN FRANCISCO - Jack Nicklaus never forgot his introduction to the U.S. Golf Association. It was the summer of 1953, and at age 13, he’d traveled from Ohio to Oklahoma and was the youngest competitor at the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa.
He had the first tee time on opening day of match play (back then, there was no medal qualifying), and made his way to the first tee only about 30 seconds before his 7 a.m. match. On the tee stood starter Lee S. Read of Louisville, Ky., clad in his distinguished white suit, and then-USGA executive director Joe Dey Jr., for decades one of the most influential men in the game. Instead of a standard morning greeting, Dey promptly admonished his promising young competitor: “Young man, 30 seconds later, and you’d be starting on the second tee, 1 down.”
Wednesday at the U.S. Open, Nicklaus chuckled while retelling the story. “That was my introduction to USGA golf,” he said. “I promise you, I was never late for a starting time.”
Safe to say, Nicklaus and the USGA would go on to enjoy quite a relationship. He didn’t win that U.S. Junior, but he captured two U.S. Amateurs, four U.S. Opens and two U.S. Senior Opens. In all, he competed in 71 USGA championships. On Wednesday, the USGA bestowed an honor upon him that the organization considered long overdue: it emblazoned its annual U.S. Open champion’s gold medal, which dates to 1895, in Nicklaus’ name. Along with a U.S. Open trophy to hold for a year, this week’s winner at Olympic will be handed the Jack Nicklaus Medal.
In addition, the USGA announced plans to build an addition onto its USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J., to be christened the Jack Nicklaus Room. Displays in the room, some of which will be web-based and shared across the globe, will feature the story of Nicklaus’ career in the majors and on the PGA Tour, his U.S. Open triumphs, as well as touch upon his extensive career as a course designer. Work will begin in summer of 2013; the room is slated to open by springtime 2015. Nicklaus will join Bob Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Mickey Wright in having a room at the museum dedicated in his or her name.
USGA President Glen Nager said it’s a core mission of the association to preserve the history of this great game, and saluting Nicklaus’ many accomplishments was “a missing chapter – honoring the greatest golfer of all time.”
“I didn’t play golf as a child, but I watched him hit that flagstick on 17 at Pebble Beach (at the 1972 U.S. Open), and his career is a highlight reel from the U.S. Open,” Nager said. “… So it was a way of taking the history of the U.S. Open and Jack’s great record as a USGA champion and passing it forward to the future.”
Also, Nicklaus’ first U.S. Open triumph, which came in 1962 at Oakmont, will be featured in a documentary that will air this Sunday. It’s titled “1962 U.S. Open: Jack’s First Major,” and was the first film actually produced by the USGA, which elicited the help of Emmy Award-winning producer Ross Greenburg. The show will air at 2 p.m. EDT on NBC.
“This was everything,” Greenburg said Wednesday at Olympic Club. “In 1962, what you had was the stars all aligned. You had (Arnold) Palmer at the zenith of his celebrity; he’s won quite a few majors at that point. And you had Jack, who was this 22-year-old out of Columbus who had not won a tournament. He’d just turned pro the previous December.
“So he comes to Arnold’s hometown, and the crowds were in force. Arnie’s Army was in full swing. They were massive crowds, some unruly, and not appreciative of Jack those first two rounds (when he was paired with Palmer). It’s so captivating to find all the little nuances of the tournament, to dive into the analysis of what Jack and Arnold both represented at that time, and then to bring it all back to life, and to transport you in a time machine to 1962.”
As part of the documentary, Greenburg had Palmer and Nicklaus revisit Oakmont nearly 50 years after their fateful playoff matchup. Nicklaus arrived a day earlier, toured Merion (site of next year’s U.S. Open) with the USGA’s Mike Davis, and then went to dinner with Palmer, who housed Nicklaus overnight as his guest.
When the two got to Oakmont the next day, Palmer turned to Nicklaus and asked, “Why are we doing this? You know, I lost that one.” And then Palmer told Nicklaus, “You know, they want to do one on (Billy) Casper at Olympic (site of the 1966 Open). I lost that one, too.”
To which Nicklaus retorted to his old buddy, “Arnold, we did Cherry Hills (1960) first.”
It was at Cherry Hills that Palmer won the U.S. Open on a day when a young Nicklaus and an aging Ben Hogan had contended.
Nicklaus seemed genuinely humbled by the honors bestowed upon him Wednesday, pausing for numerous pictures with the newly named Nicklaus Medal that this week, and forevermore, will be slipped around the champion’s neck..
“Kind of neat, isn’t it?” said the 72-year-old legend. “Take an old guy and honor him.
“I think that’s pretty nice.”