The US Open was always No.1 for me. I’m an American, and it’s the championship of my country. Of the Majors, the British Open was No.2 because it entailed the rest of the world. The US PGA Championship was No.3 because I’m a professional, and to be the best of what I do for a living, that stands for a lot. That leaves The Masters in an interesting position. It always was my favourite tournament to play. Bobby Jones was my hero, and I’ve had too many great experiences there to count. But it isn’t a championship exactly, so on that count it doesn’t surpass the other three. It doesn’t even have the word “championship” in its name. The Masters is unique in that it performs the greatest service to the game of all the majors and stands for far more than just crowning a winner. It has a small international field. So it’s hard to fit into a ranking. I’ll say this: If you conducted a poll among players now on tour, they’d rate The Masters the No.1 tournament in golf.

Oakmont might be the most difficult course in the United States. Not the hardest in the world – Carnoustie gets that honour – but in America it’s right up there, tied maybe with Winged Foot. Its difficulty is the sum of a lot of things you can’t see on TV. There are no lakes to speak of, no bodies of water. But there are little man-made farm ditches everywhere you can hit into very easily. The hole designs are tempting and can lead to trouble. There are the greens, which aren’t wildly undulating but have very severe tilt. To hit it close, you have to curve your irons in both directions, plus hit them high and low. The greens are tough, extremely firm. No greens repel rain like Oakmont greens. The water just rolls off them because of the pitch, and within an hour they’re firm again. The bunkers are difficult, and throughout the whole course, there just isn’t much letup.

"I knew after my practice rounds I needed to avoid Oakmont’s bunkers at all cost."
“I knew after my practice rounds I needed to avoid Oakmont’s bunkers at all cost.”

Oakmont is famous for its furrowed bunkers, though someone told me recently that only the greenside bunkers were furrowed for the 1962 US Open there. My memory is fuzzy on that because I thought they were all lightly furrowed. I knew after my practice rounds I needed to avoid Oakmont’s bunkers at all cost. It wasn’t just the furrowing. The sand was river sand, very heavy and really difficult to play from. You couldn’t spin the ball coming out of them. I especially avoided the Church Pews bunker that comes into play on the third and fourth holes. Over the years – I played in US Opens at Oakmont in 1962, ’73, ’83 and ’94 – every time I saw someone hit into the Church Pews, they ended up playing out sideways. Which was fair. Bunkers are places you’re supposed to avoid.

Starting at age 13, when I played in my first US Junior, I developed my playing style specifically to suit USGA setups. I’m talking courses the way Joe Dey, the executive director of the USGA back then, wanted them. Generous rough bordering narrow, close-cut fairways. Rough around the greens. Very firm, fast greens. A complete examination. The one aspect I had trouble with was deep rough around the greens, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be overcome. Hale Irwin was a master at the short shot from rough, and there were others. The idea that rough negates skill is a myth. Because my back from age 19 on couldn’t withstand chipping balls for hours, I worked around it. I figured if I could hit 15 greens per round – my back was fine practising full-swing shots – it would remove pressure on my short game. Because I was a good putter from 10 feet and in, I survived not being the best chipper from tall grass. USGA setups like the ones at Oakmont played to my strengths.

I first saw Oakmont two weeks before the ’62 US Open. I played a few practice rounds and knew it was perfect for me. I then played in the Thunderbird Classic Invitational at Upper Montclair in New Jersey, finishing second by a shot to Gene Littler thanks to him making a 35-footer for eagle on the last hole. It was my third second-place finish of the year. When Barbara and I drove across Pennsylvania on Sunday night, I never felt so motivated. I’d come so close at the Open in 1960 and ’61. By 1962 I was a better player in every way. I arrived there feeling it was my tournament to win.

Jack Nicklaus

At Oakmont it quickly became apparent that my length was an advantage. My distance gave me shorter clubs into those firm greens. How far did I hit it back then? It’s hard to equate the distances to how far players hit the ball today, but I could hit it 275 metres  under normal conditions when I needed to. I always started a round with three MacGregor Tourney wound balata balls. I marked them using a pencil, two little indentations, actually, on each side of the number. That’s how soft the covers were. I’d play a hole with a ball, knock it out of round shape, then put it in my bag to “rest.” Over the course of half an hour, it would regain its shape. While it rested, I’d rotate in another ball.

Even Arnold would probably tell you that in those days he was not a particularly straight driver. Believe it or not, his best driving days were still ahead of him. But he was a spectacular recovery player. On many US Open courses – Winged Foot, Oak Hill and Olympic, for instance – the setups worked a little against Arnold. Winged Foot, in particular, didn’t prune its trees. They weren’t only numerous, they were thick, full and the branches hung almost to the ground. Combine that with the rough, and recoveries can be impossible. This hurt Arnold more than it hurt me. His recoveries after poor drives were graceful, athletic and thrilling. But there were courses that took that away. Look, I like trees. There’s a place for them. They’re beautiful. I like how they can frame holes and can serve a strategic purpose. But you have to allow for recoveries.

A lot of the drastic changes in Oakmont’s appearance – adding trees and taking them away is a good example – I didn’t notice when I was playing. I took very little notice of trees unless they really came into play.  I had blinders on. I only saw fairways and greens.

The greens were quick, too – for their time. They ran probably only eight or nine on the Stimpmeter [they’re expected to be at 14 for this year’s Open], but when you’re accustomed to slower greens, that can seem pretty fast. Downhill putts were especially treacherous. The greens were a blend of older strains of bentgrass and several strains of Poa annua, and when you putted downhill with the grain, the ball could really get away from you. But I loved fast greens. At Oakmont,I didn’t three-putt once the first three rounds. I three-putted the first hole of the fourth round, then didn’t three-putt again. Arnold three-putted a number of times, as I recall, which was uncharacteristic of him. Back then Arnold seemed to make everything.

Oakmont is in western Pennsylvania. Arnold is from the area, so obviously the fans were on his side. I’ve always said I never heard anything the fans might have yelled at me. At Baltusrol [the 1967 US Open], I did notice a few signs saying things that weren’t very nice. Arnie’s Army travelled a long way to do that. But at Oakmont there were no signs, and in the world I was operating in, no bad yelling. Crowds never bothered me anyway, even when I played basketball in high school – trust me, Ohio has some loud fans. At Oakmont I was a 22-year-old kid trying to play golf, and that’s all I was aware of. For all I knew, they were rooting for me. Either way, I sealed everything out.

I’ll tell you who didn’t seal it out: Woody Hayes, the legendary football coach at Ohio State. At Oakmont, he and my dad walked together, heard the bad stuff, and Woody eventually had enough. He went to confront one of the fans, and my dad had to hold him back. Woody, remember, was not only the football coach, he was a family friend. He lived only a few blocks from my dad’s pharmacy and followed my career closely. It’s Woody who discouraged me from playing football and told me to stick to golf. He was one of the great men I’ve ever known, except, some might say, for three hours on Saturday afternoons – and for a few hours at Oakmont, when he overheard fans saying bad things about one of the Nicklauses. We were his people.

I’ve always said that although I might have had to fight Arnie’s Army, I never had to fight Arnold. When we were both represented by IMG, we flew everywhere together. The two of us and our wives played a ton of bridge on those flights. We talked for hours, shared our lives, had a lot of laughs. After my good season in 1962, Arnold and I played in the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas in January 1963. Arnold said, “Jack, you have to learn how to shoot craps.” So Arnold gives me a tutorial and proceeds to lose $3,000. In 1963 currency, it was a good pile of money. I liked to joke with Arnold that he taught me exactly what not to do at the craps table.

It’s easy for players younger than Tiger Woods to have the impression that golf in the early ’60s was a second-tier sport, but at the Majors especially, the crowds were huge. At The Masters, British Open and certain tour events, they were close to today’s numbers. Not across the board, but at times. Media was smaller then – no Internet and less TV – but newspaper coverage was thorough. At certain events, when the tour came, it was the biggest show in town.

Maybe the galleries were egged on by the fact I was a slow player. I admit it. I’m sure I was slow at Oakmont. It was hard for me to begin preparing to hit until it was my turn to play. I actually thought I was being considerate by refusing to walk around preparing while another player was hitting. But I was too slow, and nothing could make me speed up. Later that same year, at Portland, I finally got penalised for slow play, which I was a little indignant about because I was playing with Billy Casper and Bruce Crampton, who weren’t exactly speed demons. Joe Black, a tournament supervisor on the US PGA Tour, was very good about it. “Jack, I know I just penalised you, but I’m trying to help you,” he said. “You’ve got to be ready when it’s your turn.” I learned a great lesson from that. I was penalised one other time during my career but eventually became a faster player by learning to be respectful of my playing partners, at the same time preparing myself for the next shot.

I never let outside stuff bother me. Many years after Oakmont, when Greg Norman was at his peak, his former wife, Laura, complained to Barbara about negative articles written about her husband. “I put them in front of Greg, and he just gets so irate,” she said. Barbara said, “Why do you show them to him? Whenever I read something unkind about Jack, I did all I could to keep the newspaper away from him.” Laura caught on, and it made their lives a little easier. You can’t control what the media says, but Barbara was good at screening what I saw.

Arnold and I were paired together the first two rounds at Oakmont. I started the championship with three straight birdies, but Arnold came back. After 36 holes he was tied for the lead with Bob Rosburg, and I was three strokes back. Three strokes is nothing on a course like Oakmont. It’s hard for the leaders to keep it going. Looking ahead at the 36-hole finish on Saturday,I didn’t change anything.

On the first hole of the fourth round, I have a 25-foot birdie putt. As I’m lining up the putt, a helicopter is filming and camps over our heads. It’s déjà vu for me, because at the 1960 US Open at Cherry Hills, on the fourth hole of the final round, a helicopter flew in and stayed over our heads. I’m sweating it out trying to beat Ben Hogan and many others, and this helicopter won’t go away. I had to play and three-putted. Two years later, I’m fighting for the US Open again, and here comes another helicopter. Sure enough, I three-putt – my only three-putt in 90 holes that week.

I was still selling insurance on the side in 1962. There was no guarantee I was going to make a lot of money playing golf. I was partners in an agency with my mate, Bob Hoag. After that year I didn’t do any more selling, though I did make an occasional phone call for Bob. But we did do business into the 1970s.

Phil Rodgers was the other top young pro from my amateur class in 1962, and he started out hot the first round at Oakmont. Then, at the par-4 17th, he hit into a little evergreen tree, had a tough time getting out, and made 8. Arnold and I tied in regulation at one under par, Phil finished at one over. If he’d parred the 17th – it was less than 275m – he would have won by two.

In 1962, I stood a hair under six feet and weighed 91 kilograms. But I had a 34½-inch waist. I might have looked heavy next to Arnold, but I was in good shape. I played a lot of recreational basketball when I was at home in Columbus. On the golf course, I never got tired. I walked fast, and I could walk forever. The 36-hole finish didn’t faze me.

Maybe the tight-fitting white shirt and $12 pair of slacks I wore made me look heavier. The slacks were sort of an olive-green, grey colour. They almost looked like Army fatigues. At Oakmont, I wore them on Saturday. I was running good, so why change them for Sunday? Every time I tell that story, Barbara interrupts and points out that I at least changed into a fresh shirt. But the pants, I joke that I stood them up in the corner of our room at night and put them on the next day. They were my lucky pants.

Arnold and I wound up tied after 72 holes. He had a 10-footer to win but just missed on the high side. That set up an 18-hole playoff for Sunday. That week, Arnold stayed at his home in Latrobe. Barbara, Jackie and I stayed at a hotel – I think it was a Holiday Inn. Some felt Arnold had an advantage, sleeping in his own bed, but a hotel gave me peace of mind. There were no family distractions – unless you want to call Barbara looking after nine-month-old Jackie a distraction.

The Saturday night before the playoff, Frankie Avalon performed at our hotel. He was a huge star at the time, and unfortunately we didn’t make the show. Sunday morning, before the playoff, my mother took Jackie down to the coffee shop for breakfast. Frankie Avalon was there, eating and greeting guests. Jackie was what some would call a “spitter” – he had a way of projectile vomiting that was spectacular even for a nine-month-old. As Frankie Avalon looked on, Jackie spit up violently, even for him. It went everywhere. Frankie Avalon apparently yelled, “The kid puked!” It was quite a scene. Over the years I’ve forgotten many details of the playoff with Arnold. But I will never forget the story of Jackie’s introduction to Frankie Avalon, and vice versa.

It wasn’t the only adventure with little Jackie. Barbara would take him down to the coffee shop in the mornings when I had an early tee time, so I could get a little extra sleep. She came back to the room one morning to report that Jackie had pulled a tablecloth from their table, taking every water glass, coffee cup, plate, piece of silverware and ketchup bottle with it. It was a little stressful for Barbara, but thanks to her, I slept well. Actually, I always slept well when she travelled with me. It wasn’t unusual for me to sleep nine or 10 hours a night.

I won the playoff. I went out to an early lead, Arnold came back on the back nine, but I held on. The playoff scores were 74 for Arnold and 71 for me, but it was closer than that. I went to the last hole with a two-stroke lead, and after Arnold missed a putt for par – I had a two-footer to win it – he made a one-handed wave at the bogey putt, missed and made double. So I won by three, though it was more like two.

Arnold, after three-putting more than 10 times during the week, probably wishes he could have that tournament back. We all have them. I know there are several US Opens I wouldn’t mind having back, starting with Merion in 1971, when I left two shots in bunkers in the first three holes of my playoff with Lee Trevino. There was Pebble Beach in 1982, when Watson chipped in on the 17th hole to beat me. I’d like a do-over on that one, just so I could make Tom retry that chip. And also the 22-foot putt he made at the last, which, had it not gone in, would’ve gone several feet by the hole.

On December 10, 1962, I received the official USGA US Open film. It had a scene of me putting on the 13th hole of the playoff. After I missed the putt, I reached down and picked up my cigarette and stuck it in my mouth. So there I am, this cigarette dangling from my mouth as I tapped in. I thought it looked awful. I thought, That is the worst example of being a role model for youth I’ve ever seen. I never smoked another cigarette on the golf course. In fact, I phoned L&M, the cigarette brand Arnold and I both had contracts with, and cancelled then and there. I sent them their money back. It was years before I stopped smoking completely, but on the golf course, that was the end.

Not every US Open was a home run for me. Congressional in 1964. Bellerive in 1965. Hazeltine, Champions, Southern Hills … some weeks you just don’t have it. That included Oakmont in 1973. My memory is hitting into the rough a lot. I didn’t hit many greens (if any) from the tall stuff.

The win changed a lot of things, but not everything and not right away. Barbara and I still drove a car to tournaments with Jackie in the back. The nappie pail we packed around was a nightmare. After I won the 1964 Phoenix Open, we were asked to hang around and celebrate. Barbara said, “I’m sorry, but we really need to get to a laundromat.” An hour later, there I am, sitting in a laundromat, reading the newspaper while Barbara tends to Jackie’s nappies.