Long estranged from the club where he learned the game, Ohio’s favorite son returns for an emotional homecoming
© Bill Foley
| Credit: © 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.”

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.

By the time Grout became the head professional, in 1949, Scioto was evolving from a men’s-oriented golf retreat to a family country club that would also feature tennis, swimming, fine dining and an active social calendar. Located less than a ten-minute drive from the heart of downtown, it was becoming as much a city club—and a lunch refuge for businessmen—as a place to tee it up. But it never lost its strong link to the game, and a year after Grout took over the pro shop, Scioto hosted another major championship, this time the PGA.

That, obviously, was a very big deal. But something even more significant happened that same year, when Grout stopped by Charlie Nicklaus’s pharmacy to fill a prescription. The elder Nicklaus, a club member, asked Grout if there might be room for his ten-year-old son in the junior golf class the pro was starting. A few days later, Jack Nicklaus took his first golf lesson.

Jack fell hard for the game, and Scioto quickly became his home away from home. He won his first junior tournament that summer. Partway through his third year as a player, he broke eighty for the first time.

The following year, Nicklaus passed a milestone that was greater still. “My dad and I played nine holes, and I shot thirty-four on the front,” he says, sitting before club members on the night of the grand reopening. “Obviously I wanted to keep going, but he said we had to get home for dinner because my mother was expecting us. I said, ‘Dad, I have a chance to break seventy,’ and he said that maybe if we got to the house quickly we could get in another nine. So we ran home, ate very fast and came right back. And coming up eighteen, which was then a par five, I needed a three to shoot sixty-nine. I hit a drive and then a long iron to within thirty-five feet of the pin. It was so late it was almost dark, and I had to move a sprinkler and hose that were on the green. Then I sunk this big rainbow putt.” Not bad for a thirteen-year-old.

Nicklaus remained a fixture at Scioto through his teens, and the club reveled in his success. After he won the 1959 U.S. Amateur, for example, members held a testimonial dinner for him and made him an honorary member. And in 1960 he celebrated his marriage with a wedding reception at the club.

But soon thereafter, Nicklaus began to spend less and less time at Scioto—and more and more days on the road playing competitive golf. That separation became even greater when he turned pro in 1961, although he still teed it up at Scioto on occasion, such as for an exhibition with Bob Hope and James Garner in 1965.

“But what I remember most about that day was what happened after our game,” Nicklaus says. “Bob and Jim came back to our house for dinner, and Barbara, who was pregnant at the time, cooked us some steaks. At around nine o’clock she left the table and then came back half an hour later, carrying a suitcase and announcing that she had called the doctor. Well, you have never seen a house clear out so fast. Hope and Garner disappeared, and we decided on the way to the hospital that if it was a boy, we would name him Robert James, after our two guests that evening.”

(As it turned out, the baby was a girl, Nancy Jean, also known as Nan, so those names went unused. But Nan heard the story so often that years later she gave them to one of her own children.)

During his infrequent visits, Nicklaus noticed how differently the course played after Wilson “modernized” it. The Ross routing remained intact, but the relatively flat greens had been reshaped and elevated and most of the bunkers reconfigured. “Dick was not well at the time and made only token appearances,” says Nicklaus. “So his associates Joe Lee and Robert von Hagge did most of the work. One did the front nine and the other the back, and what you ended up with was a very mixed feel.”

Says Bill Stines, the current head professional at Scioto: “People would ask Jack about the course after that, and he’d say it was not the Scioto he grew up on. Which was true. But those comments were often misconstrued as criticism.”

Nicklaus says his goal with this project was to make Scioto as balanced as it once was. “Mike and I certainly couldn’t go back and lower all those greens,” he says. “But we could make it better.”

All told, the redesign Nicklaus and Hurdzan oversaw cost roughly $2 million and entailed moving and modifying a number of greens and improving drainage; building or rebuilding tee complexes and pulling some back so the par-seventy-one course could play at more than seven thousand yards; and relocating and deepening bunkers.

On the night of the gala, Scioto members chat excitedly about the renovation as they sip cocktails and munch hors d’oeuvres. Many men wear green blazers embroidered with the club’s arrowhead logo. They wander with their wives and friends between the Donald Ross bar, which is decorated with black-and-white photographs of the architect, and the Stag Grille, which has the convivial feel of a neighborhood saloon. They amble past the exhibits describing the 1968 U.S. Amateur and pictures of Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. They go by the barbershop, which still does decent business, and the pro shop, which has a picture window that looks out to the first tee and the eighteenth green. They talk about the next day’s tournament to commemorate the reopening, and some even discuss the possibility of Scioto hosting another major.

To be sure, the golf course is big news at the club this night. But there’s something even bigger in the air.

Jack is back.