Louisville is honoring native son Bobby Nichols, who 50 years ago bested the game's greatest players at the PGA Championship
August 03, 2014
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Louisville is honoring native son Bobby Nichols, who 50 years ago bested the game's greatest players at the PGA Championship
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Bobby Nichols’ house is at the end of a cul-de-sac near the clubhouse for Fiddlesticks Country Club, where he is the chairman emeritus of the Bobby Nichols Fiddlesticks Charity Foundation. His home looks like the typical residence of a retiree enjoying the fruits of a successful career.
Step inside the front door and make a quick right turn and the memorabilia on the walls belies his success in his chosen vocation. Golf clubs and the blue leather staff bag from his 1967 Ryder Cup appearance rest against the wall. Plaques, letters and photographs – dozens of them – cover almost every square inch of the walls surrounding a pool table. The bounty from his dozen PGA TOUR wins range from a soapstone sculpture for winning the 1974 Canadian Open to a pistol earned for claiming the Showdown Classic with partner Curt Byrum.
After Nichols won the 1970 Dow Jones Invitational, the PGA TOUR’s first $300,000 event, a newspaper story confused him with Bobby Jones. The Masters founder – and lifelong amateur – sent a letter to Nichols that reads: “I hope you don’t mind too much the mistaken identification. At any rate, you’ve got the money.” Nichols had the letter framed, another of his prized pieces on display.
A Munsingwear advertisement featuring Nichols and Bob Hope speaks to Nichols’ level of celebrity nearly a half-century ago. There’s a picture of his annual foursome from the old Crosby Clambake (now the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am) that featured Nichols, Glen Campbell, Raymond Floyd and Clint Eastwood, as well as other photographs of Nichols with celebrities ranging from Willie Nelson to Paul "Bear" Bryant.
One of the most conspicuous artifacts is the one that represents Nichols’ biggest achievement. The miniature replica of the Wanamaker Trophy stands approximately 12 inches high – the real thing is more than 2 feet tall and weighs 27 pounds – and rests on the top shelf of a book shelf, sandwiched between two colorful, ceramic trophies.
Nichols received the trophy 50 years ago for winning the PGA Championship. It was his lone major-championship victory, and it came over a leaderboard laden with World Golf Hall of Fame members. Nichols shot 9-under 271 to finish three shots ahead of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Palmer won his seventh, and final, major at that year's Masters and needed only the PGA title to complete the career Grand Slam. The '64 PGA was held in Nicklaus' backyard, at Columbus (Ohio) Country Club. Nicklaus, 24 at the time, already owned three major titles.
Of the six players who finished under par, three are in the Hall of Fame: Palmer, Nicklaus and Ken Venturi, winner of that year's U.S. Open. Nichols played with a then-52-year-old Ben Hogan in the PGA's final round.
The victory was impressive not because of who Nichols beat, but also the odds he overcame to win one of golf's Grand Slam events. The son of a blue-collar family, Nichols started playing golf after getting a job as a caddie at Audubon Country Club (he also sold vegetables door-to-door, earning a quarter for a successful sale). He nearly died in a car accident in high school before winning the Kentucky state high school championship, then played for Texas A&M after receiving a football scholarship from famed coach Paul "Bear" Bryant (more on that later). He was an assistant pro before joining the PGA TOUR.
Nichols is in Louisville, Kentucky -- site of this week's PGA Championship – for celebrations to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of his achievement. But not all the celebrations pertained to golf, namely his 60th high school reunion.
The 78-year-old Nichols was born and raised in Louisville and is one of the city’s sporting legends. He’s the finest golfer to come out of Louisville; a nine-hole course bearing his name is located just 30 miles from Valhalla, the host course for the PGA Championship.
On Sunday, the city gave him an honor reserved for its most famous residents, such as Muhammad Ali and Colonel Sanders. A large photographic mural of Nichols is being displayed on the side of a downtown building as part of the Louisville’s Hometown Heroes program.
Nichols' PGA victory was so unlikely win that sportswriters were “sent thumbing through their reference books to find out exactly who he (was),” Alfred Wright wrote in Sports Illustrated.
Not even Nichols had dared dream of taking down those golfing Goliaths.
“I didn’t think anything was going to happen, anything out of the ordinary,” he recalled 50 years later. “I was just trying to play decent.”
The fact that Nichols and Hogan were paired together in the final round of the 1964 PGA should have been a big clue that perhaps fate would play a part in the outcome that day.
In September, 1952, just prior to starting his junior year at Louisville's St. Xavier High School, Nichols was one of five teens riding in a friend’s Buick Roadmaster. The car was travelling approximately 100 mph when the driver lost control and crashed in a single-car accident. Nichols, who was sitting in the passenger seat, suffered a concussion, broken pelvis, bruised spine and internal injuries.
He woke up 13 days later, he said, and had been administered the Catholic Church’s last rites while unconscious. He was in the hospital for 97 days.
“I feel very fortunate,” Nichols said about surviving the accident. He still has black-and-white photos of the crushed car.
Three years earlier, Hogan had been involved in a famous car crash that nearly killed him and threatened to end his career. His accident and recovery is part of golfing legend. Nichols’ accident happened before he was a national figure. Yet now the two had been united by a common hardship.
A teacher at St. Xavier wrote Hogan to ask if he could send any words of support to the young Nichols. Hogan responded with a lengthy letter which Nichols still has framed and displayed in his house.
“I don’t know if there is anything I can say to you that would console you or help you, mentally or physically, since I know you have been through everything,” Hogan wrote.
“I am terribly sorry of your misfortune, and you shall be remembered in my prayers,” he also wrote.
The accident didn’t prevent Nichols from resuming his golf career but it did end his football career. And yet he was still able to get a college scholarship for the sport. St. Xavier’s athletic director, Johnny Meihaus, had played for Bryant at the University of Kentucky. Bryant had since moved on to Texas A&M, but Meihaus convinced Bryant to give Nichols a football scholarship.
At the time, football and basketball were the only sports that awarded full scholarships, Nichols said. He watched a few practices and worked with Bryant’s football players, hauling pipe for the Western Company, in the West Texas summers to make extra money.
“Everyone can look back, and there’s always been someone who’s helped direct you to where you are today,” Nichols said. “That scholarship, I couldn’t have gone to college without it. I didn’t have any money. My family was wonderful, they did everything they could, but they couldn’t put me through college, I don’t think.”
After a brief stint in the service as a second lieutenant, Nichols worked as an assistant pro at Midland (Texas) Country Club before hitting the road to try the PGA TOUR.
The years of hard work culminated at Columbus Country Club in 1964.
He didn’t arrive in Columbus in good form, but “something clicked” with his putter that week, Nichols said recently. According to Sports Illustrated, he used a second-hand putter he’d recently purchased for $5.
“I started putting well,” Nichols recalled. “It started clicking and gave me confidence. Golf is based on feel. If it feels good, you use it. I played by feel.”
The week got off to a rough start, as the courtesy car Nichols was riding in got a flat tire en route to the course. Cell phones were decades from coming into creation, and there was a brief panic that he’d miss his tee time. He was able to catch another ride fairly quickly and arrived at the golf course with “ample” time to prepare, he said.
Driving was an issue all week, though. “Time and again during the tournament, Nichols made par or birdie from deep rough, sand traps or even the wrong fairway. Once he hit the flag stick when he couldn’t even see it,” the Associated Press wrote.
Nichols, who stood approximately 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds in 1964, was never known for his consistency, he conceded, but he was a long hitter who could use that strength to shoot low numbers. Nicklaus gave a similar scouting report in a recent teleconference.
“Bobby was a very good player, but he was a good player on occasion,” Nicklaus said. “When he was good, he was very good, and then he didn't show up for a while, but when he was that good again, he was good. Bobby always had a good golf swing. He always had a nice, smooth, level swing, hit the ball a long way.”
Little more than a month after the PGA, Nichols won the Carling World Open, the PGA TOUR's first $200,000 event, at famed Oakland Hills by a shot over Palmer. Gary Player finished third, three shots behind Nichols, and Hogan was another shot back. It was an impressive stretch that began with his wire-to-wire win at the PGA.
Nichols had a three-shot lead over Nicklaus and Mike Souchak after a first-round 64 at Columbus Country Club. Nichols shot 1-over 71 in the second round, and now Palmer was his closest pursuer, standing one shot off the lead. Nicklaus’ second-round 73 had dropped him five shots off the pace. Palmer was still in second place, one shot behind Nichols, after both men shot 69 in the third round.
“It wears on you,” Nichols, who was 28 at the time, said about holding the lead all week. “You can’t help thinking about it when you’re trying to sleep. It’s hard to sleep as sound as you’d like.”
Back then, pairings didn’t go directly down the leaderboard. Instead, the players in first, third and fifth place were in the final group. The players in second, fourth and sixth place were in the second-to-last group. This format put Nichols in the final group alongside Hogan and Tom Nieporte, a former NCAA individual champion at nearby Ohio State. Nicklaus and Palmer were in the second-to-last group with Mason Rudolph.
Playing with Hogan was helpful, and not just because he was a source of childhood inspiration. Hogan’s stoic demeanor helped calm Nichols, as did the more reserved gallery he attracted. Fans respected Hogan, who was then 52 years old. Nichols said playing with Hogan was “a catalyst.” The charismatic Palmer and hometown hero, Nicklaus, drew a louder crowd.
“You couldn’t help but hear the applause for Jack,” Nichols said. “It took a while to settle down.”
Nichols caught a good break early, as his tee shot on the second hole in the final round was headed left towards out-of-bounds. The ball struck a tree and ricocheted into the middle of the fairway. He made birdie. He was tied for the lead before holing a 35-foot eagle putt at the par-5 10th. A 4-iron from the rough on No. 15 set up an 18-foot birdie putt. He sealed the victory with a 51-footer for birdie at the par-3 17th.
“When I made that eagle at No. 10, I knew I couldn’t lose,” he said in a newspaper story. First prize was worth $18,000.
Nicklaus, who’d started the final round six shots off the lead, said after the round that his final-day 64 was, “probably the finest round of golf I have ever played.” Palmer shot a final-round 69 to finish three behind Nichols, who closed with 67.
Palmer and Nicklaus weren’t the only big names Nichols had to overcome. Five of the top 12 players are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. As one newspaper caption stated, Nichols “stood off golfdom’s giants” to win.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette account described Nichols as a “traditionally poor putter and also a fair to middling scrambler” but noted that he did “both to perfection this week.”
The Associated Press report painted Nichols as the unlikely victor. It also noted that part of Nichols’ prize money went to a shrine for St. Jude.
St. Jude is the patron saint of the impossible, the AP reporter made sure to point out.
But on the wall of Bobby Nichols’ house, there is ample proof that nothing is impossible. It’s a photo of Hogan, a towel draped over his shoulder, shaking the hand of his playing partner after their final round that day in Columbus. It wasn’t just the usual post-round handshake, though.
Hogan simply wanted to congratulate the winner.
|1964 PGA Championship
Columbus (Ohio) Country Club
Par 70, 6,851 yards
July 15-19, $100,000 purse
|* -- World Golf Hall of Fame member|