Why Nicklaus wore yellow on Sundays
4 Min Read
That legacy continues with ‘Play Yellow’ campaign that supports Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals
Written by Bill Fields @BillFields1
Editor’s note: The below story explains why Jack Nicklaus began wearing yellow when competing on Sundays, most famously in the final round of his victory in the 1986 Masters. Today, he keeps that legacy alive through ‘Play Yellow,’ a Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals campaign with support from Jack and Barbara Nicklaus to raise $100 million to help the 10 million kids treated at local children’s hospitals each year. Multiple PGA TOUR players serve as ‘Play Yellow’ ambassadors, including former Nicklaus Award winner Chris Gotterup and Ohio native Justin Lower, who were both announced as ambassadors this week.In the years since Jack Nicklaus won an improbable sixth Masters title in 1986, images of him charging to victory with a closing 65 have become iconic. The green jacket Nicklaus was awarded late that warm spring afternoon in Georgia went perfectly with the yellow shirt he wore in the final round.
The combination wasn’t at all about a matching outfit but remembering a departed friend.
It was far from the first time Nicklaus purposefully wore yellow on Sunday at a golf tournament as the the color choice goes back a decade and a half, rooted in Nicklaus’s connection with a boy in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
The Rev. Dr. William E. Smith – who had been a classmate of Martin Luther King Jr. at Boston University’s School of Theology in the 1950s – was senior pastor at North Broadway United Methodist Church in the Ohio capital, where the Nicklauses attended. “Dr. Bill” and his wife, Mary Lou, had two children, Craig and Janet. The Nicklaus and Smith families enjoyed a friendship.
Craig was an outgoing child who made good grades and loved sports and music. His maternal grandparents, Alvie and Earlene Claxton, were avid golfers who moved after retirement to Pinehurst, N.C. where they could enjoy the game. Taught to play by his grandfather, Craig loved golf and had a natural, athletic swing. Knowing the best golfer in the world was a thrill.
Walking to school one day in 1968 at the age of 11, Craig fell down and later told his mother his leg was hurting badly. He was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, and given six months to live.
Nicklaus was in Craig’s corner as his illness progressed, doing what he could to lift his spirits during a difficult time. The Golden Bear phoned Craig and sent him notes and souvenirs from tournaments. On one of Nicklaus’s visits to the Smith home, Jack asked Craig about his favorite color golf shirt. Craig and his grandpa believed they played better when they wore yellow, so there was no doubt about Craig’s answer. A plan was set in motion.
Jack promised Craig that he would wear a yellow shirt during the final round of televised tournaments as a “Hello” to his young pal. “It meant everything to Craig,” Dr. Smith told Golf World in 2011. “When Craig would see Jack on TV in a yellow shirt, he’d say, ‘Hello to you, Jack.’”
What began as a private vow known only to the two families is evidenced in what Nicklaus wore while closing out victories during that time. He won the Claret Jug at St. Andrews in 1970 wearing a yellow sweater. In the 1971 PGA Championship in February of that year, he wore a yellow shirt.
Craig Smith had defied the odds and lived longer than doctors had predicted, but by the time of Nicklaus’s ’71 PGA victory, he was struggling. The young man played golf for the last time on a Thanksgiving visit to his grandparents in 1970. Craig passed away on June 7, 1971 at the age of 13.
Shortly before the 1986 Masters, Barbara Nicklaus’s mother died, and Dr. Smith presided at the funeral. “After that, Barbara suggested that I wear a yellow shirt at Augusta in memory of Craig,” Nicklaus told the Associated Press on May 5, 1986. “I didn’t tell anybody about it. But that’s the reason I wore the yellow shirt. And I saved it for Sunday.”
When Craig’s parents turned on their television that fateful Sunday and saw the color of Jack’s shirt, they knew it wasn’t happenstance. “We knew that was no casual decision,” Dr. Smith told Golf World. “We knew he was doing it in memory of Craig.”
And now, more than a half century since his death, Craig is the inspiration behind “Play Yellow” and its charitable focus on children. Craig’s parents passed away in 2014 and 2018. His sister is touched by her brother’s enduring legacy.
“Thinking of Craig and Jack and the connection made over golf and the yellow shirt always warms my heart,” Janet Smith said. “Since the announcement of ‘Play Yellow’ I have heard from friends as they participated. Just think how one connection led to help for others.”