Sixty years ago, a “Bulky Ohioan” as the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette wrote, bested Tony Lema by a stroke to claim the Masters at age 23, then the youngest to win the tournament. It was the first of Jack Nicklaus’ record six wins at Augusta. As the Golden Bear remembers, the first time is always the sweetest. [Adapted from Jack Nicklaus’ “My Story“]
During my peak playing years, what got me off the tennis court (and the fishing boat!) during what was then an extended off-season and onto the driving range each January was the thought of playing in the Masters. In 1963, golf’s greatest springtime rite had a particularly strong appeal for me. Since missing the cut on my first visit to Augusta in 1959, I had finished tied for 13th, tied for seventh and tied for 14th. As reigning U.S. Open champion — I had beat Arnold Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont the previous June — I wanted to redeem myself in America’s shrine of golf so badly I could hardly wait to get on the Augusta National grounds again.
Truth told, there was another reason — beyond my previous poor showings — for my burning desire to win the Masters. I wanted to win it for the man who had given birth to the club and the tournament and who had been at the forefront of my golfing consciousness from the very beginning: Mr. Bobby Jones.
One thing you can generally bet on at the Masters, in addition to all the scenic beauty and the fabulous atmosphere and the fine organization that runs the event, is some interesting weather. This being Georgia in the springtime, everyone hopes for calm and cloudless days with low humidity and temperatures in the mid-70s. According to the old hands, you generally get one day like that, sometimes — if the gods of golf are smiling — two.
We had gone from perfect weather during the practice rounds to some high winds on Thursday, and then back to perfection again on Friday. On Saturday came a monsoon. The rain fell ceaselessly, totaling more than an inch by the end of the day.
On Sunday, the golf gods thankfully smiled again, clearing away the clouds about the time I arrived at the course, about an hour before my 1:25 p.m. tee time. The crowds by then were enormous and got bigger by the hour to the point where people had to be turned away at the gate for lack of parking spaces.
Heading into the final round in the lead — one stroke ahead of Ed Furgol, two ahead of Julius Boros and three ahead of Tony Lema and Sam Snead — I knew that I was up against some serious competition.
Julius, Ed, Tony, Sam and I battled hole after hole. Eventually, I made it to the iconic 18th green. I had left myself a 35-foot downhiller. I almost made it. The ball finished three feet past the cup. Setting up to that putt, I reminded myself that even if I missed I would have another chance to win in a playoff with Tony. The thought relaxed me sufficiently to stroke the ball firmly. It broke left faster than I expected it to, but it slipped into the hole, resulting in my first Masters win and marking a new record for youngest Masters winner at 23 years old.
As I walked onto the 18th green earlier, the announcer there, Ralph Hutchinson, had asked me to save the ball if I won and give it to Mr. Jones. At the ceremony a little later, Mr. Jones and I had an exchange. After he and the previous year’s champion, Arnold Palmer, presented me with my green jacket, I gave Bob Jones the ball.
It was a small thing, but the look in his eyes remains one of the most emotional memories of my life.
From Jack Nicklaus: My Story. Copyright © 1997 by Jack Nicklaus. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.