How Well Do You Know The Blonde Bomber From Scioto?

Did you know that I’m a golfer? I didn’t think so.

This well-kept secret got its start in the summer of 1984, when this rising high-school sophomore took golf during two sessions of summer school at Columbus School for Girls. I learned the basics from Sharon Salzer, the now-retired CSG legend who taught physical education there for 39 years, was its athletics director for 29 years, and coached several sports.

Day after day, we played 18 holes of golf at the Columbus Country Club. I surprised myself by getting better and better, and Miss Salzer announced that I had found my sport. I developed a taste for lunch at the Ohio State University Golf Club and bought my golf glove, putter and clubs from its pro shop. I brought home golf balls as vacation souvenirs from the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club in Williamsburg, Virginia and the Sea Island Golf Club at Sea Island, Georgia. And then I scored my first hole in one. At a Laura Ashley boutique in Scotland, I met Jack Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, who were in town for the British Open.

Locals know the “Golden Bear” as a fellow Columbus native, Upper Arlington High School and Ohio State University graduate, and the founder of the challenging course at Muirfield Village Golf Club and its Memorial Tournament. But did you know that Buckeye football coach Woody Hayes was one of his biggest supporters?

As the third round of this year’s Memorial Tournament was under way, I was keeping score of fun facts like these that I was collecting at the Jack Nicklaus Museum.

Sighting the course ahead, I admired a bronze statue of Nicklaus that greets museum visitors. He received it in 1988 when he was named Golfer of the Century. Originally, it depicted him swinging an iron, but he had it switched to a more-appropriate driver.

I teed up my visit in a gallery devoted to the history of golf. The sport as we know it today was first played in the 1400s on the treeless linksland of St. Andrews, Scotland, with its naturally formed grassy dunes, mudflats and deep bunkers made by grazing animals seeking shelter. In 1744, The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers established the sport’s first rules. Read these thirteen “Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf” and you’ll recognize those things we golfers now take for granted, like keeping the tee on the ground, not changing the ball which you strike off the tee, and “He whose Ball lyes farthest from the Hole is obliged to play first.”

Imagine hitting “featheries” (feather-filled leather balls) with early “play-clubs” (drivers) and “spoons” (fairway woods) made from thorn or fruit wood, with a ram’s horn attached at the side of the head to protect it as it struck the ground and lead added to the back of the club for balance. Over time, featheries and spoons were replaced by rubber-like “Gutta-Percha” balls and iron “cleeks.”  By 1905, dimples were added to balls to make them fly farther and more accurately, while steel club shafts encouraged a more precise, upright swing. Each club had a unique name instead of a number; there were no matched sets of club until the 1930s.

Here, I also admired photographs of golf greats like Harry Vardon, the father of the modern swing who popularized the now-standard overlapping grip; Gene Sarazen, credited with inventing the sand wedge in 1932; Babe Zaharias, whose booming drives matched her outgoing personality; and Sam Snead, whose perfect tempo and rhythm combined to create one of the sweetest golf swings in history.

Taking the first dog leg in the course, I began my decade-by-decade trip through Nicklaus’s life. His January 21, 1940 birth certificate from White Cross Hospital in Columbus is displayed beside his baby bracelet. Family photos and home movie footage of his father, Charlie; mother, Helen; and younger sister, Marilyn document his boyhood.

Jack Nicklaus’s Scioto Country Club juvenile champion trophy, 1950

When Nicklaus was 10, he started caddying for his father, whose doctor prescribed long walks to help an unhealed ankle injury. He also enrolled in a junior golf class at the Scioto Country Club, located blocks from his home, and took home his first trophy as the club’s juvenile champion that year. So began Nicklaus’s close relationship with Jack Grout, who taught the young prodigy not only the fundamentals of the game, but also to believe in himself. Throughout his career, Nicklaus would take a refresher course from Grout at the start of each season and would return for periodic checkups as the season progressed.

As he worked and worked to keep improving, the young Nicklaus couldn’t drag himself away from the golf course. An average summer day began with hitting practice balls at 7:30, playing 18 holes at 8:00, then practicing putting, all before lunch. A lesson with Grout followed, after which he would play 18 more holes, then hit more balls. After a dinner break, he would return to the course to hit more balls until leaving for the day at 8:30. Having mastered the course’s long, narrow fairways and small, raised greens, the “Blonde Bomber from Scioto” became known for his accurate shots that went longer distances than those of most adults. Golf legends like Bobby Jones praised the young man for his talent and composure, as well as his powerful and beautiful swing. He also became known for the interlocking grip his father taught him to use. With his smallish hands and short fingers, this grip gave him more control; it differs from the more common “Vardon” grip in how the little finger of the right hand hooks around the forefinger of the left hand, rather than overlapping the finger.

When Nicklaus enrolled at Ohio State, he planned to major in pre-pharmacy, so he could join his pharmacist father in his drugstore business. As he racked up victories in amateur golf championships, he decided to sell insurance so he could pursue a professional career in golf.

Jack Nicklaus’s circa-1950s 3-wood

At the peak of his strength in the 1960s, he bent — even broke — the shaft of his driver during downswings. Some of the courses he played started adding bunkers to cope with his tremendous power. For all 20 of his major championship victories, he carried a Tommy Armour 3-wood manufactured by MacGregor. Although he got a new set of irons annually, he used that 3-wood from 1958 to 1983, repairing it when it cracked because it was so reliable.

He was also known for his ability to “think” a course as well as play it, approaching each shot as a mental exercise where he made notes of yardages and planned his attack for victory. By the 1970s, he dominated the sport.

As Nicklaus wrote in Golf My Way, his method book first published in 1974: “‘Going to the movies’ before selecting a club from the bag would make golf a less frustrating game for many weekend players. In my case, visualizing the ball’s ultimate resting place forms the opening scene. This is followed by a travelogue in which I imagine how it will get there. The finale in my mind’s eye features the setup and swing I’ll need to effect a happy ending.”

I putted along the museum’s displays, taking in scores of trophies and mementos from Nicklaus’s career, which includes 20 major championships (6 Masters, 5 PGA championships, 4 US Opens, 71 PGA tour wins and 100 professional victories worldwide). Examples are the golf balls he used in 1997 during the last putt of his 150th consecutive major championship and the 10,000th hole he played in major championships; the golf glove he used at the 2005 Masters Tournament; pairs of Rockport and Bostonian golf shoes he wore in the 1990s; and cufflinks and stick pins he received from Presidents Ford and Reagan.

There’s one of his legendary Kelly green sportcoats earned by winning the Masters Tournament, as well as his handsome Masters trophy that depicts the famous clubhouse at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.

Making my way down a picturesque fairway documenting Nicklaus’s major championship wins, I passed the coveted silver claret jug bestowed upon winners of the British Open…

…as well as a five-pound banknote with his likeness on it, issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland to commemorate his last visit to the Open Championship. About the time I spotted him shopping at Laura Ashley, he received an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews. During the laureation address, Nicklaus was praised for his integrity, his good conduct, his honesty, and his sportsmanship.

Noting the time, I concluded that my visit to this museum was going to come in at a bogey rather than birdie, let alone an eagle. So I took a break in a re-creation of the Nicklaus family living room in Florida and watched a video in which Nicklaus, his wife and some of his children recall their memories.

I hooked into the gallery just beyond. There, I reveled in seeing several advertisements in which the Nicklauses have been featured over the years, from Pontiac and Coca-Cola to cordless phones and lawn fertilizer. Hart, Schaffner & Marx’s “Golden Bear” blazers are a “perfect match for tournament slacks,” while a Lincoln Town Car is “perfect for those really long drives.” Remember Nicklaus’s “Do you know me?” commercials for American Express?

As he played courses around the world, Nicklaus started hankering to design a challenging golf course in his native central Ohio. In 1966, he closed on 180 acres of rolling farmland, meadows and woods near Dublin and began creating a spectacular setting, adding additional acreage during the next few years. He kept the golf-tournament spectator in mind as he created a course with mounds, tiered tees and circular ampitheaters. He named it Muirfield Village, after the Scottish word for “moor,” in tribute to the Muirfield course in Scotland where he won his first British Open and played his first Walker Cup match.

Memorial Tournament trophy

The first unofficial round at Muirfield was played on October 1, 1973 – my fourth birthday – and the course was officially launched on Memorial Day 1974. He has changed the course over the years, reworking the green, raising and reshuffling tees, and moving trees.

Since the mid-1960s, Nicklaus also wanted to create a tournament that would not only honor the great golfers of the past, but also support local charitable organizations. The first Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club took place in May 1976, with Bobby Jones as the first honoree.

Hitting a beautiful drive from this gallery into a long fairway of Nicklaus family portraits, I decided that my favorite parts of the museum weren’t really about the Golden Bear. The best parts were those celebrating the contributions of Barbara Bash Nicklaus, a fellow Columbus native who graduated from North High School, continued her studies at Ohio State, was a member of its 1959 Homecoming court, and married her husband on July 23, 1960 at North Broadway United Methodist Church in Columbus. Many examples of the beautiful jewelry she has received over the years are on display.

There’s her charm bracelet documenting the birth of their five children…

as well as other glistening gold charms commemorating her husband’s wins in the Tournament of Champions, the Ryder Cup, and other championships.

Sean Connery narrates “Jack Nicklaus Beyond the Final Round,” a short film I watched before coming to the museum’s 18th hole, which calls attention to Ohio State’s contributions to improving golfers’ games through turf grass science and research. Buckeyes are advancing the control of pests, weeds and diseases; improving how turf grass grows and absorbs essential nutrients; and discovering better ways to construct new putting greens. Alumnus James B. Beard, a preeminent turf grass scientist, is the author of Turf Management for Golf Courses, known to golf course superintendents as “Beard’s Bible” because of its fine description of how to select, establish and cultivate turfgrass for putting greens, tees, fairways and roughs. Alumnus David R. Mellor is one of the leading creators of the elaborate mowing patterns used on athletic turf grass. His book, Picture Perfect: Mowing Techniques for Lawns, Landscapes, and Sports, offers techniques to make your lawn both healthy and the talk of your neighborhood.

I left the museum thinking about something Nicklaus said: One of the best things about golf is that it’s a sport that you can play by yourself. It’s a challenge between you and the golf course, and that demands self-reliance.

I think I’ll start taking a few practice swings.

The Jack Nicklaus Museum, located at 2355 Olentangy River Road in Columbus, is open for tours Tuesday through Saturday.

For more on Jack Nicklaus, read Golf My Way, by Jack Nicklaus, with Ken Bowden, foreword by Jack Grout; Jack Nicklaus: My Story, by Jack Nicklaus, with Ken Bowden; Jack Nicklaus: Memories and Mementos from Golf’s Golden Bear, by Jack Nicklaus, with David Shedloski; Jack Grout: A Legacy in Golf: Pioneer Tour Pro and Teacher to Jack Nicklaus, by Dick Grout, with a foreword by Jack Nicklaus; and Well Done!: Life, Love & Food: Recipes and Memories from Barbara and Jack Nicklaus. For more on Muirfield and its Memorial Tournament, track down The Story of Muirfield Village Golf Club and The Memorial Tournament, by Paul Hornung. 

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