1970 Open at St. Andrews - Jack's springboard

Dad's death propelled Golden Bear to greatest heights

Jack Nicklaus – 1970 Open

Jack Nicklaus - 1970 Open
Jack Nicklaus after his last competitive round of golf at the Open at St Andrews in 2005
(Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND.  The relationship between father and son can be a close one and the connection between Jack Nicklaus and father Charlie was especially so.

Charlie was the guiding force in his son’s development as a man and golfer. Jack’s closest friend was Charlie and when his father died from pancreatic cancer at 56 in February of 1970 the news carried a deep introspection for Jack. Having had just turned 30 the month prior the loss of his dad was profound for Nicklaus.

Jack Nicklaus – 1970 Open

“My dad lived for what I did. I found when he died, I had not given him my best,” said Jack. “I worked hard — yes — but I could have worked harder. He lived his life through what I did on a golf course. I think I could have played a lot better. I rededicated myself.”

The Nicklaus golf career jumpstarted at an early age. His first professional win came after a stellar amateur career. Winning his first professional event at 22, the U.S. Open title, in a playoff against the sport’s top player at that time — Arnold Palmer. Nicklaus would become the fourth player to win a career Grand Slam in 1966 when winning The Open at Muirfield. Jack was also the youngest at that time to accomplish the feat at 26.

Jack Nicklaus – 1970 Open

After winning the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol with a new record four-round total the trajectory of the Golden Bear’s career inexplicably plateaued. 

After winning the national championship of American Golf — Nicklaus would not win another major title in just over three years. 

Charlie’s passing pushed the Golden Bear and when Jack arrived at St. Andrews for the 1970 Open he put into motion what he believed would have made his dad proud.

Both Nicklaus and fellow American Doug Sanders trailed final round leader Lee Trevino by two shots but it became a two-man battle for the balance of the final 18 holes.

Jack Nicklaus – 1970 Open

When Sanders reached the final hole the situation was clear — a score of no more than four would earn him the title as the “champion golfer of the year.” After hitting the green in the regulation stroke — Sanders’ birdie putt left him three feet for the win. After sizing up the putt and then stepping away to remove a loose piece of grass — Sanders pushed the short putt wide right. 

For the first time in the championship an 18-hole playoff would settle matters.

This time when they reached the 18th it was Nicklaus leading by one. Jack unleashed a massive blow and hit his drive over the green. Seeing Sanders near the hole for a tying birdie — Jack played a deft chip to roughly seven feet away which he was able to hole and with it his second of three Open Championship wins. 

Jack Nicklaus – 1970 Open

The win by Nicklaus prompted him to raise his golf game to even greater heights throughout the 1970s.

The Golden Bear would win four additional majors through 1973. His constant presence was something his fellow competitors were keenly aware of at all times.

The Open Championship loomed large for Jack in the years that followed his win in 1970.

Throughout the 70s he never finished outside the top five. His epic showdown with Tom Watson — appropriately named the “duel in the sun” was the finest display of golf on the grandest of stages at Turnberry — Jack sinking a 45-foot dazzling putt at the final hole but coming up short by one stroke to Watson.

Jack Nicklaus – 1970 Open

The very next year Jack would win again at St. Andrews — claiming a second triumph at the Old Course. In the years to follow — only Tiger Woods would match the feat accomplished by Nicklaus.

The interesting thing is had Sanders made the short putt in 1970 would the momentum for what Nicklaus would achieve in the decade ahead have happened? Hard to say with absolute certainty.

While death took away Charlie Nicklaus at the young age of 56 — his spirit prevailed in taking Jack to a level of golf dominance never seen in the sport. 

“Dad, I think I made you proud here,” said Jack. Yes indeed.

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At 65 Nicklaus would conclude his participation at the Old Course with a final walk in 2005 — marking his 164th major championship. The crowds were riveted to the scene — observing golf’s greatest champion making his final competitive walk over the famed Swilcan Bridge. Joining him was his long-time rival and friend Tom Watson. The outpouring of support was off the charts and the emotions stirred brought Jack to tears.

Keen in rising to the occasion, Nicklaus looked over an 18-footer for a concluding birdie and holed it to the delight of all those gathered and watching worldwide on television. 

As Jack left the green, he hugged his son Jackie (Jack, Jr) and then embraced his life-long partner in life, Barbara. The intersection of family front and center.

Jack Nicklaus – 1970 Open

How magnificent that for this year’s event Nicklaus will join an even more elite grouping when he is named an honorary citizen of St. Andrews. The rare honor bestowed from the town council will have Jack join a very select grouping — Benjamin Franklin in 1759 and amateur great Bobby Jones in 1958.

52 years have passed since that epic win in 1970 reignited a sleeping bear into one who would take his career to the highest of peaks.

A son’s desire to achieve all that he could to please a father that had always been there for him.

The spirit of Charlie Nicklaus smiling from afar with moments at The Old Course etched in stone forever.

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