By JOHN REITMAN
Smack in the middle of the Ohio State athletic complex is a tribute to arguably the most successful athlete in Buckeye history.
It’s not Jesse Owens, Archie Griffin, Jerry Lucas or even Hopalong Cassady.
During his collegiate campaign at Ohio State, Jack Nicklaus was an NCAA champion and twice won the U.S. Amateur championship, providing a glimpse into what eventually would become the most storied career in professional golf.
That professional career spanned 40 years and includes 73 PGA Tour victories and a record 18 major championships. His accomplishments on and off the golf course are immortalized in the Jack Nicklaus Museum located on the OSU campus.
A bronze edifice that depicts the Golden Bear during the prime of his career greets visitors in the foyer and points the way to a series of exhibit halls and theaters that reflect his accomplishments in junior, amateur and professional golf, his family life at home and his ongoing exploits as one of the world’s leading golf course architects.
Nicklaus has donated literally thousands of items to the museum, including trophies, golf clubs and bags, photographs, clothing worn during memorable victories, original blueprints from golf course design projects and lettermen’s jackets and sweaters from his high school days at Upper Arlington as well as his time as a collegian at Ohio State.
The first exhibit pays homage to the game’s golden era and early pioneers, including the late, great Bobby Jones who Nicklaus credits for helping mold his career. Other exhibits explore the early years of the game, and its metamorphosis caused by the evolution of equipment.
But its the trail of exhibits that recognize the exploits of Nicklaus on the golf course that make the museum a must-see for any golf enthusiast, especially those smitten with nostalgia and the history of the game.
The museum winds visitors through halls dedicated to Nicklaus’ career by decades and major championships, including the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship and the U.S. Amateur, which he won a combined 20 times.
Nicklaus grew up in Upper Arlington, which is a driver and wedge from the Ohio State Golf Club. As a junior, he won numerous tournaments, including the Ohio State Junior championship a record five consecutive years beginning at age 12.
Nicklaus, who could have played anywhere, chose Ohio State where he was the NCAA Division I medalist in 1961, the same year he turned professional, and twice won the U.S. Amateur (1959, 1961).
Throughout the museum visitors repeatedly are reminded of the importance of family on Nicklaus’ career. One of the last stops on the tour is a replica of the family room in Nicklaus’ home in North Palm Beach, Florida. A looping video that plays on a TV monitor in the room includes reflections of his five children on what it was like growing up with the Golden Bear. Nicklaus recounts through the many years on tour that he never spent more than 14 consecutive days away from home, and how, no matter where he was at the time, he returned home for the birth of each child.
Son Jack II tells visitors how his dad gained notoriety for fainting in the hospital at the birth of each child: “Maybe he was amazed by the beginning of life, or it’s a commentary on how ugly his kids are when they’re born.”
There is a great deal of space throughout the museum devoted to Nicklaus’ wife, Barbara, without whose help, he says, his success would not have been possible.
And there is evidence of a lot of success here.
Literally hundreds of items are on display that reflect Nicklaus’ efforts at Augusta National, where he won the Masters Tournament six times (1963, 1965, 1966, 1972, 1975, 1986), including the club’s trademark green jacket given each year to the winner. The display also includes the shirt worn during the final round of his victory in 1975, the MacGregor irons he played during his infamous win in 1986 when he became the tournament’s oldest winner at age 40, a feat that still stands today, as well as the signed scorecards from each round of that historic event.
The 1960s exhibit shows how Nicklaus took the professional golf world by storm, winning 30 tournaments, including six majors. But it is when visitors take a step into the 1970s that they are see firsthand Nicklaus’ greatest period of success.
Known derisively as “Fat Jack” during the early stages of his career, a slimmed down Nicklaus exploded in the 1970s, winning 39 times, including eight majors.
Even fellow World Golf Hall of Famer Gary Player, in a video on display in the museum’s Nicklaus Theater, takes good-natured jabs at his contemporary’s one-time weight issues and the deliberate pace of play for which Nicklaus was famous.
“One bad thing was how many times Arnold (Palmer) and I had to wait,” Player says. “If he had been a racehorse and been that slow, he would have been shot.”
Nicklaus always showed that he was worth the wait.
John Reitman is director of news, editorial and education for TurfNet.com, a news and information service for golf course superintendents based in Orlando, Florida. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.