Grin And Bear It

DENVER, COLORADO | There was a certain Nicklaus family symmetry on display at the U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills Country Club last week, as Gary Nicklaus tried to qualify for the match play portion at a site his father helped make famous.
It was in 1960, in what the legendary golf writer Herbert Warren Wind called “the wildest open ever,” that a 20-year-old Jack Nicklaus announced himself to the world with a stunning performance that still resonates 50-plus years later.
The reigning U.S. Amateur champion at the time, Nicklaus was playing in his fourth U.S. Open, and he led briefly on the back nine of the final round before a pair of ill-timed three-putts derailed him. Meanwhile, Arnold Palmer famously drove the first green on the way to six birdies in the first seven holes and a final-round 65. Palmer won that day, but Nicklaus finished second while recording the best amateur performance in an Open since Johnny Goodman won in 1933.
Nicklaus went on to win 18 major championships and become, by acclamation, the greatest ever. He would also become a major champion at home, siring four boys and a girl and arranging his schedule around their youthful sports and activities at home in Florida.
Gary Nicklaus, the fourth child, wasn’t just going to be the next Nicklaus; he was going to be the Nicklaus to become the next Nicklaus. At 16, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and his father conjectured that one day the youngster would break all of his records.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. Gary turned pro in 1991 after an undistinguished golf career at his dad’s alma mater, Ohio State, and he chased the pro game around the globe, trying to live up to the name and the advance billing. It took nine attempts for him to graduate from PGA Tour Qualifying School, and he held his card for three largely unproductive years. Finally, when the game was no longer fun, he set aside the dream in 2002.
The younger Nicklaus’ appearance at Cherry Hills, his sixth in the Amateur, also closed the circle on his aborted effort to play the 1990 championship there, the year that Phil Mickelson won. Shortly after arriving in Denver that August, he was hospitalized with heart attack-like symptoms, and he spent the entire week in the hospital. It wasn’t a heart attack, but rather a condition that caused inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart. Nonetheless, it cost him his shot at that Cherry Hills U. S. Amateur.
Now 43, Gary is a reinstated amateur and working for the family golf course design business. He dabbles on the mid-amateur circuit, mostly in Palm Beach County, facing the challenges all mid-amateurs deal with.
“When I first got my amateur status back, I was excited,” Nicklaus said on the Nicklaus golf website. “I played in a couple of local events, and I did well. I have a family, I have a job, so it’s hard to go out and practice as much as you should if you want to be good. There are other choices you have to make. This is my first tournament on a national stage in over 10 years, so it’s a different mindset. It’s a little more exciting. Nothing against our county amateur, but the U.S. Amateur is a different deal.”
Gary was a celebrity at Cherry Hills. He is the spitting image of his father, in size, stature and look. He got off to a rough start, playing the first seven holes of his first round in 4-over par. He righted the ship with four straight birdies on holes 8-11, and posted a 1-over-par 71 at the CommonGround GC. He had a chance to make the cut as the second round began, but his old putting woes got in the way. “Frustrating” is how he characterized his 3-over-par 74 at Cherry Hills, and he was left to hope for afternoon winds to help his cause. The help didn’t arrive, and he missed the stroke-play cut by two shots.
Gary’s parents were on hand last week, walking all 36 holes of qualifying, doing their best not to be conspicuous or a distraction. There was poignancy about seeing the Golden Bear striding ever purposefully on the golf course that was so important in the legend making all those many years ago. Jack, who avenged his 1960 loss with a Senior Open win at Cherry Hills in 1993, largely kept to himself and focused on the golf. Barbara, per usual, engaged with and charmed all who came within her range.
This won’t be Gary’s only USGA appearance this year. He recently qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur, to be played in Chicago this fall. He observed that this effort might whet his appetite for more national competition. When asked what it will take to succeed against guys his own age, his reply was simple: “Putt better.”
The elder Nicklaus says he is done with the pro game for the foreseeable future, but he smiled when asked about the Champions Tour. The smile answered the question succinctly.
He had, after all, turned 72 in January.


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