A Golden Anniversary For The Golden Bear
Text Size

Jack Nicklaus, en route to defeating Charles Coe in the 1959 final, called it "the most exhilarating and exhausting duel I have ever been engaged in." (USGA Museum)

Winning the 1959 U.S. Amateur was "my first stepping stone to realizing that I might really have a future in the game," recalls Jack Nicklaus

By Dave Shedloski

Jack Nicklaus always seemed mature beyond his years, whether as a 10-year-old kid blasting balls at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, or impressing Bob Jones during a practice round in his first U.S. Amateur appearance at age 15 in 1955, or winning the 1956 Ohio State Open at age 16, competing against professionals, or finishing 12th in his first PGA Tour event, the 1958 Rubber City Open in Akron.

So perhaps it should have been no surprise to anyone when Nicklaus, at age 19, won his first major title at the 1959 U.S. Amateur Championship by defeating defending champion Charles R. Coe, 1 up, at the Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The stocky, confident youngster already had established his big-time credentials, earlier that season being named to represent the USA in the Walker Cup Match in Muirfield, Scotland, winning the North and South Amateur and successfully defending his title in the Trans-Mississippi Amateur.

"Those of us in his hometown had known for years how good Jack was. I saw that kid when he was 10 years old, and a lot of us were very high on Jack at the time," said Kaye Kessler, a sports columnist for two Columbus newspapers for 40 years. "It was no surprise to us when he won the U.S. Amateur. But now everyone else knew how good he was, too. That year he really came of age, and then, of course, he nearly won the U.S. Open the next year."

Nicklaus, indeed, came of age, going through what he called "a sort of finishing school," in the summer of '59.

The lessons began in Scotland, where Nicklaus played beautifully for two days in his first taste of golf abroad, winning both of his matches in the USA's 9-and-3 win over Great Britain and Ireland. The following week in Sandwich, England, he won the Royal St. George's Challenge Cup. Though he missed the cut at the 1959 Masters and the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, he actually furthered his education in the latter major by carefully watching his fellow competitors, Doug Ford and Gene Littler. The two pros scrambled to scores that made the cut while Nicklaus shot two 77s, and it struck the youngster that he had not yet figured out how to manage his game on days his ball-striking was substandard. In assessing how to grasp the intricacies of such management - or both his game and the course - Nicklaus became a devoted student of golf course design.

He put all of these newfound enhancements to his competitive arsenal on display on the East Course at the Broadmoor, where he engaged Coe, his Walker Cup captain, in one of the most exciting finals in the history of the amateur national championship - one Nicklaus still ranks among the toughest challenges he's ever encountered.

Nicklaus had not advanced past the fourth round in his four previous U.S. Amateur appearances dating back to the 1955 championship at Country Club of Virginia. But in the 65th U.S. Amateur, the young golfer trumpeted his emerging growth into a champion when he dismantled a kindred spirit of sorts in the first round. His name was Robert Tyre Jones III, son of the celebrated Grand Slam winner. Playing in the championship his father won on five occasions, including the 1930 edition at Merion Cricket Club that wrapped up the Grand Slam, the younger Jones, 32, had little chance against the Golden Bear.

Nicklaus' 7-and-6 triumph was not much of a surprise, at least not to the elder Jones, who figured that Bob III had the talent to advance deep into the championship - until he learned the identity of his boy's opening opponent. He decided then to stay in Atlanta, saying, "Son, I don't think it would be worth my effort to fly to Colorado just to watch you play 12 holes."

"The funny part about that is that Bob and I talked a bit after the match, and he told me the story of how he called his dad beforehand to see if he was going to come out and watch," Nicklaus said, recalling how he learned that the elder Jones had eschewed attendance. "He told me that he asked his dad after the pairings came out if he were coming, and Bob said his dad asked who he was going to play. 'Oh, I'm playing the young Nicklaus kid,' Bob told his dad, to which his dad asked, 'is that Jack Nicklaus?' Bob told him it was, and that's when his dad said that bit about not coming out for only one short match.

"It was funny how it ended up being 7 and 6 - the score his dad had predicted. We laughed about it," Nicklaus added. "It was fun playing against Bob. Obviously, he was a very good player in his own right."

Nicklaus might have proved he could stay ahead of the Joneses, but his pursuit of the Havemeyer Trophy became considerably more complicated in the later matches. In the fifth round, Nicklaus survived a close call over North Carolina native Dave Smith amid questionable, chaotic and quixotic conditions; the match was played in fog so thick that spotters were needed throughout the course to follow the golfers' shots. Nicklaus remembered playing almost every full shot "totally blind," but a tense par on the home hole produced a 1-up victory. In the semifinals, he sweated out a similar result over former U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Gene Andrews, of Pacific Palisades, Calif., whom Nicklaus had beaten earlier that year in the North and South Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2.

The final, by comparison, couldn't possibly be any tougher or more taut. But it was. John English, who at the time was assistant executive director of the USGA, called the championship match "classic drama," in his account in Golf Journal. "It merited that term, I think," Nicklaus wrote in his first book, The Greatest Game of All. "I would feel that way had I lost and not won it. It certainly was both the most exhilarating and exhausting duel I have ever been engaged in."

The Golden Bear proved he was ready for the challenge. He opened with a strong par followed by consecutive birdies. For that effort he found himself 1 down as Coe birdied three in a row. And so it went. Nicklaus fell behind by as many as three holes in the morning 18 holes before scratching back to end up two in arrears at the break.

A lanky, 35-year-old Oklahoma oil broker, Coe was a two-time winner and defending champion. He was a skilled and tenacious opponent who wasn't going to beat himself; he held or shared the lead for the first 31 holes and led outright for the first 20. By contrast, Nicklaus led for only four holes total, though he did end up with the stroke-play edge, carding 71-69 to Coe's 69-73. With his famously impervious patience, Nicklaus finally was able to nose ahead, converting his 10th par in 11 holes at the 32nd, and he maintained the edge until a messy bogey at the par-5 17th - featuring a duck hook and an attempted recovery that ricocheted off a gallery stake - set up a dramatic finish.

With the match all square, each man opted for 3-wood off the tee at the Broadmoor's home hole, a 430-yard par-4 that doglegs sharply right and climbs uphill. They drilled their tee shots into the fairway, and their golf balls came to rest three yards apart. Nicklaus' ball rolled just beyond his opponent's, meaning he would be hitting second into the green. Those turned out to be three crucial yards.

Choosing an 8-iron, Coe took dead aim at the flag, but his approach landed hole high, failed to hold the green, and the ball raced over the fringe and down a slope into a grassy hollow. Fingering his own 8-iron, Nicklaus watched Coe's shot intently and then opted to hit a punch 9-iron. The approach was splendid, checking up below the hole about eight feet away.

Coe, conceding nothing and grinding to the end, nearly chipped in from the almost impossible spot, the ball trickling down the slope dead on line before stopping a half-turn from the cup. But now the opening was there, and the precocious Nicklaus took it, holing his left-to-right birdie putt for a 1-up victory to become the youngest U.S. Amateur champion in a half century, since Bob Gardner in 1909.

In his autobiography, My Story, Nicklaus wrote: "If there is ever really a moment when a man can say a dream began, and he began to try to give it substance, this for me was the moment."

Years later the sense of discovery he felt that summer was still vibrant.

"I think in some ways I still didn't know how good I was at golf, even when I was named the No. 1 amateur at the end of the year," Nicklaus said, savoring the memory. "It took me a while to realize that I was the new Amateur champion. But I figured that I must be better than I thought, and so winning the U.S. Amateur was probably my first stepping stone to realizing that I might really have a future in the game."

It was a future percolating with promise, which he later fulfilled with a game with which no one was familiar - not even a golfer named Bob Jones.

Dave Shedloski is a frequent contributor to USGA print and online publications.