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Ohio has always been a very special place for Jack Nicklaus. It’s where he was born and raised, but it’s also where his legendary PGA TOUR career began as an 18-year-old amateur at Firestone Country Club.
Then a sophomore at Ohio State, Nicklaus accepted an invite into the 1958 Rubber City Open. After rounds of 67-66 had him just one off Art Wall Jr.’s lead, Nicklaus was paired with Tommy Bolt, who three weeks earlier had won the U.S. Open.
“Here’s an 18-year-old kid playing with the U.S. Open champion and I had a chance to win the golf tournament,” Nicklaus recalled.
A third-round 76 derailed Nicklaus and he would finish in a tie for 15th. But it still registered as a huge thrill and an introduction to a place that provide a string of big moments.
In 1962, the World Series of Golf was founded, bringing together the winners of the four major championships for a 36-hole exhibition. Nicklaus had won the first of his 18 major championships that year, the U.S. Open, and joined Arnold Palmer (Masters, Open Championship) and Gary Player (PGA Championship). Golf “Big Three” provided for quite an entry for the WSOG.
Nicklaus won the inaugural edition with a 135, four strokes ahead of Palmer and Player. Over the next seven years, Firestone continued to contribute to Nicklaus’ success. He won three more WSOG tournaments (1963, ’67, ’70) and the 1968 American Golf Classic.
But he wasn’t done just yet.
The vaunted South Course hosted its third PGA Championship in 1975 and the Nicklaus magic was too much for everyone. He won his 14th major, fourth PGA, and sixth time at Firestone, though the eventual four-stroke win had its anxious moments. Notably, in Saturday’s third round when what Nicklaus described as “your routine miracle par” added another chapter to his folklore.
Nicklaus arrived to the storied 16th hole, famously dubbed “The Monster” by colleague Palmer, with the lead over Bruce Crampton. It all began when he pulled his drive so far left, he found a water hazard he didn’t even know existed. “Stupidly, I hit driver instead of a three-wood,” Nicklaus recalled.
He incurred a one-shot penalty stroke, then followed up his third shot by pushing a six-iron into the right rough behind a large three and short of the pond that guards that front of the green.
From behind the tree, Nicklaus rolled the dice and took a gamble that even he admitted to be a dangerous play.
“But, I had only one other option. That was to pitch out to the fairway and play safe. If this was to be my choice, I had to admit to myself I would then be playing for a double bogey seven. I don’t like to play for seven, so I went for the shot over the tree. I knew it was a shot to make six or eight,” Nicklaus said.
He boldly crushed a nine-iron over the tree from 137 yards out, clearing the tree by inches, landing the ball 30 feet from the flagstick.
“It was a trick shot I guess,” Nicklaus told reporters. “It was a shot that required me to get the ball 30 feet into the air quickly, carry over a tree, the pond, and still hit a nine-iron 15 yards father than it should be hit.”
Without any doubt, Nicklaus ran in the putt amongst a large crowd of partisan Ohioans for one of the most remarkable holes in the history of the game.
“When I got that ball on the green, I just knew I was going to make the putt for five,” Nicklaus confidently said.
The hole officially measured 625 yards in distance, but Nicklaus needed every extra yard for his historic par save. “I suppose the four times I hit the ball covered approximately 703 yards.”
He later called the shot his “biggest gamble in a major.”
One year after that PGA Championship, the World Series of Golf became a 72-hole PGA TOUR event, expanding its field to 20 players with a winner’s check of $100,000. Again, Nicklaus was in the field, though he sensed a different vibe in Akron that week. “This is a major tournament, but isn’t a major championship,” he told reporters.
Nevertheless, Nicklaus did it again, winning by four over Hale Irwin for his seventh win at Firestone. At the time, no other player in PGA TOUR history of the game had won that many times at the same course. (Tiger Woods eventually eclipsed Nicklaus’ mark, winning eight times at Firestone and eight times at Bay Hill.)
Still, it’s likely that not even Woods enjoyed the visit to Firestone on the Nicklaus level.
“I have so many great memories of Firestone and of all the years I played here, even the memory that I got carried off the practice tee in 1981 when my back went out on me,” Nicklaus once said of the time he withdrew with muscle spasms from the World Series of Golf.
“It didn't make any difference. I loved coming up here. I loved playing the golf course. It suited my eye. It suited my game. I don't care what's going on. I'm going to get to Firestone sometime and I'll be able to play well there.”
In 2013, Nicklaus was named Ambassador of Golf by Northern Ohio Golf charities, an award presented annually to a person who has “fostered the ideals of the game on an international level and whose concern for others extends beyond the golf course.”
This honor didn’t just commemorate his success at Firestone CC, but the impact he’s made on Akron, his home state and the entire sport. But when accepted the honor, Nicklaus let it be known that he felt a kinship to Firestone CC.
“There were things that started here for me at Firestone,” he said. “I played in the first World Series of Golf, and, of course, won several of those and won the American Golf Classic, won the PGA Championship here. This has been a pretty special place for me.”
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