Happy Birthday Jack!
Jack Nicklaus celebrated his 78th birthday on Sunday 21st January. The great man may have long since exited the major stage but it’s only fitting that we look back at some of his greatest moments from The Open.
Nicklaus won 18 major championships, a tally that puts him four ahead of Tiger Woods as the most successful male golfer of all-time, and just for good measure he also holds the record for most runner-up finishes in majors too.
When it comes to The Open, Nicklaus was crowned Champion Golfer on three occasions including twice at the Old Course at St Andrews.
The 95th Open – Muirfield (1966)
It was a case of fifth time lucky for Nicklaus at The 95th Open as he won his sixth career major championship in dramatic circumstances at Muirfield to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player as the only players to have won all four majors.
Nicklaus achieved this at the age of 26, the youngest person to have accomplished the feat, and he did so in the first Open played over four days rather than three. With a second and a third-place finish already under his belt in his first four attempts, there would be no denying Nicklaus this time around.
He started strongly, ending the first two days with a one-shot lead from England’s Peter Butler. While his 75 in round three allowed the field back into it, and notably compatriot Phil Rodgers to head into the final day one stroke clear, Nicklaus stormed back on the final round. Out in 33, he put the pressure back on his challengers, with Rodgers slipping from contention, and Arnold Palmer likewise. Three bogeys in four holes around the turn put the destination of the Claret Jug back in doubt, but just as it seemed the title of Champion Golfer might escape his grasp, Nicklaus finished birdie, par to win his first Claret Jug.
The 99th Open – St Andrews (1970)
Of the 18 major victories Nicklaus won, none were more unlikely than in 1970 at St Andrews when Doug Sanders missed a three-foot putt on the last green which would have won him the Claret Jug. It is one of the most famous missed putts the game has ever seen. Sanders was distracted by something when initially addressing the ball and bent down to pick up a blade of grass before pushing his effort to the right of the cup.
The miss meant Sanders would face Nicklaus in an 18-hole play-off, the first in Open history, and for the second time Sanders finished a runner-up to the great man. The play-off was dramatic, with Nicklaus dominating early to take a four-shot lead after 13 holes.
Sanders fought back, and trailed by just one playing the last when Nicklaus smashed his drive to the back of the green. Sanders managed a three, leaving Nicklaus with two shots to win. He did just that, putting from eight feet to become Champion Golfer of the Year for a second time, and his first at the Home of Golf.
“I had never shown emotion like that before, it was totally out of character,” he said after the win. “But then I had never won the oldest golf Championship in the world at the cradle and home of the game.”
The 107th Open – St Andrews (1978)
In 1978 Nicklaus became the first man in the modern era to win The Open twice at St Andrews and he did so with another brilliant final round. Tied second after three rounds, Nicklaus produced a bogey-free final round 69 as he overhauled the leading duo of Peter Oosterhuis and Tom Watson, while holding off the challenge of New Zealander Simon Owen. He managed three birdies in that round, enough to win the title by two strokes – the largest of his three victories at The Open.
Nicklaus at Carnoustie
While Nicklaus never won at Carnoustie, where this year’s Open will be held, his record there still ranks right up with the best. In 1968, two years removed from his first Open win, Nicklaus finished tied for second as Gary Player took his second Claret Jug, thanks to a magical eagle on the 14th.
When The Open returned to Carnoustie in 1975, it was Nicklaus’ long-time rival Tom Watson who became Champion Golfer of Year. While their rivalry will be remembered mostly for the Duel in the Sun two years later at Turnberry, on this occasion Watson also got the better of Nicklaus, eventually taking the title with a play-off success over Jack Newton. Nicklaus finished tied for third, just one stroke back of the leading pair.
Jack’s Open legacy
In addition to his three Open wins, he finished runner-up on seven occasions and third three times. Over a 17-year period from 1963 to 1980, only once did he fail to finish in the top six – an unrivalled period of consistency from the greatest the game has ever seen.
It would be no disservice to Ben Curtis to say he is the second-greatest Champion Golfer born in Columbus, Ohio. After all, when you share a hometown with The Golden Bear, Curtis – like almost everyone down the years – is simply vying for second place.