Scioto, named for the Wyandot Indian word for “deer” as well as the river that runs near the club’s pillared entrance, has been associated with Nicklaus for years. It is in many ways the place Jack built—and rebuilt, given this recent renovation. To be sure, the club has a distinguished and varied golf pedigree, having hosted a U.S. Open and a Ryder Cup as well as a PGA Championship, a U.S. Amateur and a U.S. Senior Open. It has also boasted a Hall of Fame roster of club professionals, including George Sargent, Jack Grout and Walker Inman. But it derives most of its identity from its association with Nicklaus, going back to those first lessons he took as Grout’s ten-year-old student. The club’s nearly one thousand members—of whom 325 have full golf privileges—keep that legacy alive with extensive exhibits in their sprawling, two-story brick clubhouse. The clippings and other memorabilia detail Nicklaus’s illustrious amateur career and celebrate the triumphs that date to his days playing out of Scioto.
The relationship between the star and his boyhood club, however, has not always been easy. Nicklaus rarely visited Scioto once he hit the big time, which disappointed the membership. After his father, Charlie, died, in 1970, he would stop in to have lunch with his mother, Helen, who was a member until her death in 2000. But he rarely teed it up, and when he did return to Columbus, it was to build—and then frequent—his own club, Muirfield Village. Some members were also unhappy with comments Nicklaus made after Dick Wilson oversaw a redesign of the golf course in the early 1960s, saying it was no longer the track he’d grown up on. A number of them felt Nicklaus had unfairly criticized their beloved club and believed his words were more than a little misplaced, especially because he was the one who had recommended Wilson when Scioto leaders asked for his opinion of a suitable architect.
In fact, the gulf had grown so great that in 2005 the members didn’t even think to ask Jack to oversee the course overhaul, originally conceived as a bunker renovation. Instead, they decided on another local designer in Hurdzan.
Though he may have been dismayed by the slight, Nicklaus didn’t slink away. Rather, he quietly let it be known that he would like to be involved in the renovation if Scioto—and Hurdzan—would have him. He also said he’d do it for free.
“I didn’t want to interfere,” Nicklaus says over lunch in Scioto’s Stag Grille after his course tour. “But I did want to lend a hand. After all, this is where I grew up and where a lot of the guys I went to high school with still play. I also felt kind of responsible for what happened with Dick Wilson. He did not do what I thought he would.”
The next night, Nicklaus leads an hour-long discussion about what he and Hurdzan did to the golf course and why. Nicklaus chokes up when he says Grout was like a second father to him, and he is clearly moved when the club gives him a collage that includes images of his dad and his good friends from Scioto—known as Charlie’s Gang—who would travel together to watch Jack compete.
“I am very proud to have grown up here,” Nicklaus says to the assembled members. “I know I left a long time ago, but I never intentionally ignored Scioto. I had a family. I spent a lot of time on the road. I never had the chance to come back to play because I didn’t play when I wasn’t competing. But I am back now, and I am very pleased you have allowed me to reconnect and be a part of what you are doing.”
The club Nicklaus is reconnecting with was founded in 1916 by a foursome of Columbus residents that included Samuel P. Bush, the great-grandfather of the current president of the United States. Bush and his friends lamented the absence of an eighteen-hole course in town and decided to build one themselves, purchasing nearly two hundred acres of farmland and engaging the services of Scottish-born architect Donald Ross. The course opened for play the summer of that same year.
Only a decade later, Scioto hosted the U.S. Open. Club pro George Sargent, who had won the national championship in 1909 and was president of the PGA of America from 1921 to 1926, was largely responsible for securing that honor from the United States Golf Association. And the club was rewarded with a superb competition that concluded with Bobby Jones making a birdie on the seventy-second hole to win.
Five years later, Sargent helped Scioto get the Ryder Cup, which was being played for only the third time. Though back then the match seemed little more than an unimportant exhibition, it generated a lot of excitement at the club, what with the presence of stars like Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen. It also further established Scioto’s reputation as a place that was all about the game.