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Welcome Back, Jack

© Bill Foley

Photo: Bill Foley

Wearing sunglasses, khakis, a yellow wind shirt and an off-white cap featuring the Golden Bear logo, Jack Nicklaus is behind the wheel of a golf cart, scooting around the leafy confines of Scioto Country Club, the Ohio course on which he learned to play the game as a boy. Sitting beside him is Mike Hurdzan, the architect he teamed up with last year to renovate the ninety-two-year-old Donald Ross design; trailing them are a handful of members and club officials leaning on the legendary player’s every word. As the entourage wheels down the fourth hole on this late May afternoon, Nicklaus points to a spot off to the side and says, in his distinctively squeaky voice, “That’s where I’d cut through the houses, carrying my bag.” Apparently this unofficial entry to the course, in the prosperous Upper Arlington part of town, is only a block and a half from the house he grew up in. “I’d hit my tee shot there and play to the clubhouse. Then I’d go practice and play eighteen.”

Though he visited Scioto (pronounced “sigh-OH-tuh”) eight times during the redesign process, Nicklaus has yet to see the finished product in playing condition. So he drives up to each tee and green to survey his work, sometimes startling Scioto members who suddenly find themselves putting or hitting drives under the watchful eyes of the man who won eighteen professional majors—and who still has an honorary membership. He makes comments about various aspects of the redesign and then moves on, motoring up and down the gentle rolling hills and around the stands of specimen maples and oaks that give the course so much of its character.

“This green is much better than it was,” Nicklaus says as he walks onto the putting surface of the eleventh and admires the undulations he and Hurdzan created. “It has some spice now.”

“The back tee here looks good,” he says as he gets to number fourteen. “That’s where it was when I was a kid, but it disappeared. Restoring it makes this a better hole.”

At the par-three seventeenth, the sixty-eight-year-old Nicklaus talks about his first hole in one. “I was thirteen and playing Bill Cowman in the junior club championship,” he recalls. “It was a thirty-six-hole final, and in the morning Bill hit his tee shot to within a couple of feet. But I knocked mine in, so he lost the hole even though he made two. That afternoon, Bill hit his ball to within two feet again, only this time he made birdie to my three. And as he walked off the green, his father said to him, ‘I told you that you’d eventually win that hole if you kept making two.’”

Arriving at the eighteenth, Nicklaus flashes back to his wedding day forty-eight years ago, when he played on the morning of his nuptials to Barbara Jean Bash. “I said to the guys in the group, ‘This is my last tee shot as a single man, and I am going to hit it as far as I can,’” explains Nicklaus, who at the time was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. “I ended up topping the ball into the creek in front of the tee.”

By Nicklaus’s own estimation, it’s been more than twenty years since he’s actually played Scioto. But without question the club still feels like home to him. The Golden Bear has stories about every hole, and he receives plenty of reminders from members who greet him on the course. Like Robin Obetz, who was best man at his wedding. Or his cousin Jim Nicklaus, who gives him a hug on the eighteenth green.

This feeling of reconnection between the club and the golfer follows Nicklaus around the course. Both parties had fallen out of touch, and the result was hurt feelings and misunderstandings. But later that day, as the gala celebrating the work he has done commences, all seems forgotten. The Ohio State spring band marches up the first fairway in full song, and Nicklaus, wearing a cashmere blazer, hits the ceremonial opening drive with his wife, Barbara, looking on.

“We are a family club,” Scioto member Larry Huddleston points out to me. “And today we are welcoming back an old member of the family.”

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