Ed. note: This look back at the 1980 U.S. Open – during the week that the 120th edition had been scheduled at Winged Foot – is the second in a series of remembrances of memorable years in tournament history.
Before the 1986 Masters, Jack Nicklaus had the 1980 U.S. Open.
Nicklaus was 40 years old at the time and the storyline of his remarkable career hadn’t tilted fully toward sunset, but it was heading that way, or so it seemed.
If Nicklaus’ unlikely sixth Masters victory as a 46-year old was the emotional high point of his career, his fourth and final U.S. Open win (and second at Baltusrol) was a prelude of sorts.
When 1980 arrived, Nicklaus was coming off his first winless season on the PGA Tour, raising questions if time had erased the wide gap between Nicklaus and everyone else. It was a natural assumption and Nicklaus, who hardly touched his clubs during a five-month break, had gone back to his longtime teacher, Jack Grout, early in 1980 to rework a swing that he felt had become too vertical.
He also enlisted his friend and fellow tour player Phil Rodgers to help him with his short game. Nicklaus said he had developed the chipping yips to the point that he sometimes putted around bunkers rather than hit pitch shots over them.
By the time Nicklaus arrived at Baltusrol for the 1980 U.S. Open, he had gone nearly two years since his last victory. Adding to the uncertainty about Nicklaus was the fact he was coming off a missed cut in his most recent start in the Atlanta Classic.
The menace had gone missing from the Golden Bear.
Nicklaus and Baltusrol had a history, however. The classic A.W. Tillinghast creation not far from New York City was where Nicklaus had outplayed Arnold Palmer to win the 1967 U.S. Open, setting the championship scoring record in the process.
That was the year when Nicklaus, looking for something fresh on the greens, had put a Bullseye putter that had been painted white in his bag. Nicknamed “White Fang” by the man he borrowed it from, Nicklaus began holing putts again.
It was the 1-iron, a club Nicklaus used like a magic wand through his career, that ultimately defined his seventh professional major championship victory.
Needing a birdie at the par-5 finishing hole to set the U.S. Open scoring record, Nicklaus ripped a 237-yard 1-iron third shot (his tee shot found a bad lie in the rough) to within 22 feet of the hole, allowing him to become the first player to sign for 275 in the U.S. Open, four strokes better than Palmer, the runner-up.
In the first round, Nicklaus electrified the championship, shooting a 63 that tied the lowest round in major championship history. As good as it was, it didn’t set him apart as Tom Weiskopf also shot 7-under par 63 that day.
The 1980 victory was among his most memorable major championships considering the questions that had begun to be asked about his former dominance.
“All of a sudden I got back to Baltusrol and I remembered that in 1967 I broke the Open record,” Nicklaus said in a recent USGA video recounting his 1980 win. “It was a golf course I thought I could handle. I played a practice round and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I thought this golf course was easy. This is really tough.’ ”
In the first round, Nicklaus electrified the championship, shooting a 63 that tied the lowest round in major championship history. As good as it was, it didn’t set him apart as Tom Weiskopf also shot 7-under-par 63 that day.
The two former Ohio State All-Americans soon went their separate ways. While Weiskopf failed to break 75 in any of his final three rounds, Nicklaus found himself dueling with Japan’s Isao Aoki (with whom he played all four rounds) and Keith Fergus on the sticky June weekend.
Nicklaus led by two strokes after 36 holes and he started the final round tied with Aoki, whose unique putting style – he addressed the ball with the toe of his putter in the air and employed a pop stroke – made him one of the world’s top players.
“Even though I hadn’t won for a while, I got myself in position and knew how to play. I won the PGA Championship (at Oak Hill) later in the year and I didn’t play nearly as well as I did at Baltusrol. But I putted the eyes out of it,” Nicklaus said.
After building a two-stroke lead early in the final round, Nicklaus found himself tied with Fergus as he made the turn. A birdie at the 10th put Nicklaus ahead again and he closed out his victory with birdies on Baltusrol’s 17th and 18th holes, both par-5s, as the galleries chanted, “Jack is back, Jack is back.”
“I loved the way the USGA set up golf courses. That was my introduction to the game. I played my first U.S. Junior in 1953 at Southern Hills. I always looked forward to getting to (the U.S. Open). I had to bring out my best game.
“Hitting it long was good. Putting it in play was more important. Hitting it high in the air and landing it softly was always a great advantage. I loved doing that in US. Opens. … I loved playing that strategic thinking-man’s game,” Nicklaus said.
Thirteen years after setting the U.S. Open scoring record at Baltusrol, Nicklaus rewrote the record book again, finishing at 8-under-par 272 while joining Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan as the only four-time U.S. Open winners.
“I’ve always told people it’s the most important tournament in golf to me because I’m an American,” Nicklaus said. “It’s the championship of your country.”
Top: Jack Nicklaus tees off during the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol. Photo: John Kelly, Getty Images
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