Ed. note: With Memorial week upcoming at Muirfield Village, former LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem provides memories and anecdotes of his association with Jack Nicklaus, the creator of the tournament and the golf course.
During my years as LPGA Commissioner we often had dinner parties at our home in Jupiter, Florida. One night we entertained several LPGA pros and we asked Jack and Barbara Nicklaus to join us. We discussed a number of things, one of which was why did women tennis players fare better than LPGA players in compensation, media attention, etc. I said to Jack that I thought the primary reason was that their major events were held at the same time and venue as the men’s major events. For example, at the U.S. Open in New York City, if you were watching Björn Borg and John McEnroe and wanted to watch Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, you only had to walk a few yards into an adjoining court. I then said that this was impossible in the golf world.
Later in the evening Jack said, “Why couldn’t the men and women play events, maybe not majors, but popular events at the same venue?”
A few weeks later, Jack’s people came up with two ideas – the Diners Club matches, in which all three tours were represented by several two-person teams, played on the same golf course at the same time; and the Wendy’s 3-Tour Challenge, in which representatives of each tour competed against one another.
I was very impressed that Jack refused to concede that men’s and women’s events could not be played on the same venue and he and his people made it happen. And, by the way, the JCPenney Classic was an example of men and women playing together on the same course. My dear friend W.R. Howell, chairman of JCPenney, was a serious supporter of women’s golf and this event was a testament to his strongly held beliefs. The format was simple. In one year, a full field of male pros would each choose a female partner. The next year the female pros would choose a male partner. Most of the top players participated. It was wonderful.
“Let me tell you something, Charlie. Any course can be made a tournament course if you narrow the fairways, grow the rough and make the greens roll lightning fast.” – Jack Nicklaus
I was also involved in helping build what came to be known as the Jack Nicklaus Sports Center in Mason, Ohio, just northeast of Cincinnati. It is a wonderful facility and a terrific public golf course with a very comfortable clubhouse and restaurant. There are also tennis courts and later we built a magnificent tennis stadium on the property. This facility is now the home of the Western & Southern Open, one of the top four tennis tournaments in the United States.
When the golf course was nearly finished, Jack and I sat down to talk about the future. We were both very pleased with the design and I was looking forward to seeing play begin. Jack then almost gave me a heart attack when he said, “Charlie, we’re going to have a PGA Tour tournament here next year.” After recovering my ability to speak I said, “But Jack, this is a public golf course. It’s not designed for professional play. The trees are whips and the grass is just now growing in. How can we possibly host a PGA Tour tournament?”
I will never forget Jack’s answer. He said, “Deane Beman (then PGA Tour Commissioner) owes me one and I am confident we can get it on the schedule.”
Jack then said, “Let me tell you something, Charlie. Any course can be made a tournament course if you narrow the fairways, grow the rough and make the greens roll lightning fast.”
That’s what we did. The tour gave us a spot on the schedule in October and the event was very successful. The winners included Mike Hill, Miller Barber, Ben Crenshaw and Jack himself. Incidentally, after Jack’s 1973 victory in the inaugural Ohio Kings Island Open he announced that he was giving all of his winnings to charity.
Some things never change.
The problem was the October date. In the fourth year, the Sunday of the tournament found the Reds in the World Series and the Bengals playing the Browns. That’s when we began thinking seriously about the future.
I had just learned that the LPGA was looking for a new home for its LPGA Championship, a prestigious event and one of their major championships. We made a deal with the LPGA to move their championship to the course in 1978 where it remained for 12 years. We were blessed that Nancy Lopez was in her prime at that time and she lived in a house on the golf course where she won all three of her major championships (1978, 1985 and 1989).
Later, what was then known as the Senior Tour (now Champions) agreed to play an event on that Nicklaus course, making it, by my estimations, the only public golf course to host events on all three tours. The Kroger Senior Classic had a 14-year run in Ohio from 1990-2004. So, Jack’s vision that the course could hold its own against the best proved itself three times.
During the four PGA Tour events that were played there, Jack came to me and to Burch Riber (who was the tournament director) with a strange request. He said that he would like to have an early tee time on one day and a late tee time on the next day so that he could fly to Florida and watch one of his boys play in a football game and still be back to make his time the next day. I don’t remember how we worked this out. What is important is what it shows about Jack’s commitment to his wife and his kids to not let golf conflict with his being a good father.
It is something that I saw many examples of over the years and it is an absolute measure of the man.
Photos: Courtesy of Charlie Mechem
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