There are many remarkable statistics relating to the glittering career of Jack Nicklaus, but his record at The Open from 1966 to 1980 surely counts among the most impressive.
Displaying stunning consistency in golf’s original major, the Golden Bear not only lifted the Claret Jug on three occasions in this period, but also finished inside the top six in 15 consecutive Championships.
In addition to a victory at Muirfield and two triumphs at St Andrews, his golden run featured six runner-up finishes, swelling Nicklaus’ overall tally to seven after he had finished second in 1964.
While there have been many great Open Champions, no other player in the modern era has ever put together such a lengthy sequence of high placings.
In this long-form article, using never-before-seen quotes from Nicklaus’ Chronicles of a Champion Golfer film, we explore two key factors in that sustained success: his willingness to embrace new challenges and unrelenting desire to keep improving, even once he had become the most prolific major-winner in the game.
Nicklaus’ first appearance at The Open came two years after another icon of the game had played a significant role in reinvigorating the Championship.
Arnold Palmer’s appearance at St Andrews in 1960 heralded a new era in which The Open would quickly become much more attractive to American players. Palmer finished a close second to Kel Nagle over the Old Course, but he soon returned to the United Kingdom to win each of the next two Opens, at Royal Birkdale and Royal Troon.
When Palmer defended his crown at Troon, a 22-year-old Nicklaus marked his debut in The Open with a tie for 34th. Already the U.S. Open champion, Nicklaus recognised he would need to make changes to his game in order to achieve similar success on British links courses.
To his immense credit, he adapted quickly enough to come close to victory in each of the next two Opens, placing third at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1963 and second at St Andrews the following year.
Nevertheless, by the time the Championship was held at Muirfield in 1966, Nicklaus had five majors to his name but was still seeking a first success outside the United States.
“Was it the hardest one for me to win? Probably. More so because the golf courses that we played The Open Championship on were ones that were not familiar to me or familiar to my type of golf,” acknowledged Nicklaus.
“I grew up hitting the ball in the air playing target golf, playing in conditions in the middle of the United States in Ohio that were not particularly windswept. Sure, we had wind, but nothing like you have at The Open Championship.
“It was just a real treat to go and play a Championship in conditions that you’re not familiar with. You had to adapt your game and learn how to play.”
Although Nicklaus loved Muirfield and felt he “should do well there”, he knew a cautious strategy would be required if he was to prevail.
“The golf course was set up totally not for me,” he said. “It was set up with narrow fairways and about 18- to 24-inch rough right off the edge of the fairway.
“That was a tournament where we all felt like if you put your bag down in the rough to go look for your golf ball, you’d lose your bag. And if you had a short caddie, you’d lose him too!
“I had to make up my mind how to play the golf course and I felt like a driver was not the club for that golf course. You just could not put the ball in the rough.”
Despite being renowned at the time as one of the most powerful players in the game, Nicklaus went on to use his driver sparingly, a decision that paid off handsomely.
A two-under total of 282 secured victory by a shot from Doug Sanders and Dave Thomas, and ensured Nicklaus became only the fourth player in history to complete the career Grand Slam.
What is more, he now had a template to follow that would deliver repeated success in The Open, not to mention considerable enjoyment.
“I always felt like I would much rather play a golf course where I had to think my way around, pick the right golf club off every tee, play position, either work the ball left to right or right to left into a hole,” he added.
“I really enjoyed shot-making. Granted, my power gave me a great advantage when I needed it or wanted it, but I only used it maybe once or twice a round when I was playing through most of my years.
“St Andrews was not a power golf course. Muirfield was not a power golf course. None of the British rotation is power – it’s all putting the ball in the right place at the right time. And I call it playing golf, golfing your ball. That is why I loved The Open Championship. I loved having to do something that was not my strong suit. I loved going the other direction and beating other people at their own game. That was fun!
“I think The Open Championship and seaside golf is the most versatile type of golf and it’s not the only type of golf, but I frankly enjoy it more than any other kind.”
By winning at two different Open courses and earning runner-up finishes at a further five venues, Nicklaus provided clear proof of his adaptability.
For that reason, he has little time for players who claim their game is not suited to certain layouts.
“You have to be able to play everywhere,” he said.
“I see players come to a tournament and say: ‘Oh, this golf course doesn’t fit my game.’ Hello! The golf course isn’t supposed to fit your game, you’re supposed to fit your game to the golf course. Otherwise we’d play the same course every week.
“You always have to fit your game to the golf course, so that’s the fun of it, learning how to do that.”
After triumphing at Muirfield, Nicklaus came second in the next two editions of The Open before tying for sixth at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1969.
He was then reunited with the Claret Jug the following year, triumphing at St Andrews as he famously took advantage of a short missed putt from Sanders on the final green.
Sanders’ missed opportunity resulted in an 18-hole play-off the following day, which culminated in more drama as Nicklaus drained a birdie putt for victory and celebrated by hurling his putter high into the air.
The victory ended a three-year wait for Nicklaus’ eighth major title and marked the beginning of another excellent streak as he racked up a further six over the next five years.
By winning the 1973 PGA Championship amid this stellar period, Nicklaus claimed a slice of history that he still holds to this day. His 12th professional major win set a new record, eclipsing the mark set by Walter Hagen, while Nicklaus’ two U.S. Amateur titles also meant he surpassed Bobby Jones’ record of 13 majors in the amateur era.
At the age of 33, Nicklaus was already the most successful male golfer in history. Yet that did not mean he was ready to ease up in his quest for further trophies.
“People were telling me that I was a pretty good player and that I was doing pretty well. And, you know, I never really paid a lot of attention to it,” he said.
“During most of that period of time, I was too focused on trying to get better to worry about somebody telling me how good I was. That didn’t interest me at all. All I wanted was to try to get better.
“And there was a certain time in my career, probably after 1980, when I realised that I probably wasn’t going to get better. But I still wanted to work at it.”
Although Nicklaus acknowledges he would have liked another record to pursue after passing Jones and Hagen, his motivation certainly remained high in the years that followed.
A succession of near-misses in subsequent Opens surely played a part in maintaining this drive. From 1971, Nicklaus’ results at the Championship read: T5, 2, 4, 3, T3, T2 and 2.
He could have been forgiven for becoming exasperated, especially in 1977 when he finished 10 strokes clear of the third-placed Hubert Green at Turnberry, only to be edged out by Tom Watson in the magical Duel in the Sun.
Nicklaus, however, remained focused on ensuring his own performance was as good as it could be, regardless of the final outcome.
“You’re not going to win everything,” he reasoned. “There are a lot of weeks you’re going to play a great tournament and someone just might play better, and that’s OK.
“I never felt bad about losing as long as I gave it my best effort. I got beat a lot, everyone gets beat a lot in the silly game of golf, it’s just the way it is.
“But as long as I put my best foot forward, I knew that I was good enough to be in contention, and so each venue that we went to I had to make sure that I could prepare my best.
“Sure, some of them I liked better than others, but as far as the Open rotation was, I liked all of the golf courses. Some I felt I could play better than others, but I liked them all.”
In addition to remaining upbeat if he performed impressively only to miss out on first place, Nicklaus, who recorded 19 runner-up finishes in majors to go alongside his 18 wins, was also more than happy to offer advice to fellow players.
“I felt that golf is a game, and in fact all sports, where you have to help people,” he explained.
“I had a lot of help during my time when I played. A lot of guys … Arnold gave me a lot of help early on, Gary Player ... so I have no problem helping someone else.
“I always felt like I wasn’t going to have somebody beat me because of something I helped them with. I wanted to beat them with my golf clubs, that’s what I wanted to beat them with.
“If they beat me, even if I helped them, so what? I just felt like I had to play better if they got better with it, so that didn’t bother me one way or another.”
By the time The Open returned to St Andrews in 1978, some were beginning to question whether Nicklaus’ major-winning days were over. Almost three years had passed since his record-extending 14th success, in the 1975 US PGA Championship.
“Well, I don’t know if I was past my best when I came back in ’78 or not. It was possible, but I was still a pretty young guy, 38,” said Nicklaus.
“I was not that old, maybe I was a little old in the game of golf, and I’d just finished the year before playing Watson at Turnberry and almost won.
“I felt like coming back to St Andrews in ’78 was a tournament that I ought to do very well in. I was pretty much at the peak of my game at that particular time in my career and I felt like I should do well.”
If Nicklaus’ first Open success at Muirfield owed much to his decision to use the driver sparingly, another adaptation regarding his longest club proved similarly fruitful as he triumphed again at the home of golf.
“I changed drivers for that tournament,” he said. “I went to a driver that had a little less loft and actually had a longer shaft. For most of my career I played with a driver which had 11 degrees of loft and was 42-and-three-quarter inches long, almost a 3-wood. The driver I switched to was 43-and-a-half inches and had nine-and-a-half degrees of loft, and I could make the ball bore into the wind with it.”
After a steady start to the Championship, Nicklaus duly moved through the field over the weekend with back-to-back 69s, earning victory by two shots and claiming a 15th major crown. In doing so, he became the first man to win all four majors at least three times, a feat that has since been matched only once, by Tiger Woods in 2008.
It would certainly not be the last time Nicklaus proved his doubters wrong. He went on to claim two further majors in 1980, before earning number 18 in sensational fashion six years later as a 46-year-old at The Masters.
Thirty-four years on from that remarkable triumph, Nicklaus continues to stand alone as golf’s most prolific major champion, thanks in part to his success in adapting to the unique challenges of The Open.