Nicklaus at The Open

The Golden Bear's Indelible Legacy

There is no other major golf event that rivals The Open Championship in terms of the varied elements that all players must face and overcome. The varying weather conditions are clearly front and center. Then you have the assortment of bounces common to links golf — both good and bad — that can arise at any moment. 

Nicklaus at the Open - The Golden Bear's Indelible Legacy
Jack Nicklaus on the famous Swilken Bridge on the 18th fairway during the Open Championship 2000,St Andrews Old Course. (Matthew Harris / TGPL)

It does not take much for any golfer — even the best in the world — to have a stellar round in progress become derailed and with that end any opportunity to claim the famed Claret Jug.

The name Jack Nicklaus is known to all golfers. And while much of the current spotlight has focused upon Tiger Woods when he claimed his 15th major triumph earlier this year at The Masters, it’s important to itemize how stellar the Golden Bear was in his heyday.

From 1963 through 1980, Nicklaus demonstrated a consistency that defied reality. In those 18 consecutive Opens the Golden Bear won three times, placed second a record seven times, finished in the top five 16 times and only once did he finish outside of the top ten with a 12th place finish. Nicklaus. Suffice to say — tour de force golf.


What many may either not know or fully appreciate is that though Nicklaus won 18 major golf championships — he also finished 2nd a mindboggling 19 times! To examine his record in the most minute detail — between 1966 and 1979 — Jack only finished outside the top three in The Open Championship just three times and in those instances he finished tie for 6th in 1979, tied for 5th in 1971 and 4th outright in 1973. Suffice to say when Jack competed in The Open you knew he was going to be in the mix.

What many people sometimes do not weigh heavily enough is that golf is not just about the wins alone. It is about being able to be a consistent factor in the biggest events. And when one considers how totally unpredictable the day-to-day conditions can easily be during any Open Championship it speaks volumes in the manner by which Nicklaus was able to thoroughly prepare himself time after time, years after year.

The Open prides itself, quite rightly, in illuminating the character of golfers. It is rather easy for anyone to lose one’s concentration and get sidetracked by what happened rather than what lies ahead. Nicklaus was the consummate tactician — being able to comprehend the ever changing landscape and knowing when to be both aggressive and conservative as the situations unfolded.

Jack won two of his Open Championships at the revered Old Course at St. Andrews. His first victory came in 1966 — at Muirfield. The victory made such an impressions on Nicklaus, he ultimately named his home course Muirfield Village – just outside his hometown in Columbus, Ohio. The 1966 win also added the career Grand Slam to his record and, at that time, the youngest ever to accomplish that incredible feat.

Nicklaus at the Open - The Golden Bear's Indelible Legacy
1970 Open at the Old Course in St Andrews

One needs to know the wherewithal of Nicklaus to change gears when the situation dictated. At the 18th green of the playoff with Doug Sanders, the image of Nicklaus peeling off his sweater and then driving over the green 358 yards away still boggles the senses. Jack would then get his 2nd shot to eight feet and then hole the putt for the win.

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The secret to the Golden Bear’s incredible consistency was a clear game plan — never pushing the limits in attempting reckless plays with little likelihood for success. Nicklaus studied courses with an exact detail in realizing probabilities of success and failure. In his triumph at Muirfield in 1966, the rough beyond the fairways was so dense and high that Jack quickly realized keep his tee ball in play at all times on the short grass was essential. Nicklaus played 1-iron tee shots and avoided the big numbers that befell many of his competitors.


Much has been rightly written on the talents demonstrated by Tiger Woods and rightly so. Like Nicklaus, Woods has two of his three Open titles at The Old Course. In his 2000 victory, Woods avoided all 112 bunkers throughout the 72 holes. But it was the manner by which Tiger won the ’06 Open at Royal Liverpool that added another meaningful chapter to his stature and borrowed a page from the Nicklaus playbook in its clinic-like precision. Woods eschewed usage of his driver all but two times and provided a scintillating clinic hitting long and middle irons closer than others were hitting short irons.


The Nicklaus record is layered far beyond just a recounting of his total number of major championships won. Jack’s wherewithal to size up situations — in the cauldron of high level competition — and then executing accordingly is often forgotten by those who only see the talents of the present crop of top tier players.

This week’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush will once again provide another opportunity for golfers in pursuit of The Claret Jug to think smartly when called upon during the most pressure packed of moments..Nicklaus set a standard in elevating his game when such moments arose—setting a high bar that may never be surpassed. In that 18-year run at golf’s oldest major event, the Golden Bear always kept himself in the hunt—keeping himself close enough to the lead to make a timely move. Jack was there, his competitors knew that and, most of all, Jack knew they knew it too.

Nicklaus at the Open - The Golden Bear's Indelible Legacy
Jack Nicklaus claims his 18th Major at the 1986 Masters

There are revered past champions who clearly made their mark at The Open — with the likes of Harry Vardon, Henry Cotton, Peter Thompson, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, among the most noted. But the Nicklaus standard for year-to-year consistency remains among the supreme triumphs in the game’s long history. One can only wonder how a Nicklaus in his prime would have fared at Royal Portrush this week. Clearly, the Golden Bear would have relished the opportunity.

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