The Bear honored a dying child

August 8, 2019

William was born into an athletic family on January 27, 1940. His dad Charlie was a pharmacist who owned a couple of drug stores in Columbus, Ohio and had played football for the Buckeyes at Ohio State University in his college years. William was an all-around athlete in high school, playing football, basketball, tennis and competing in track and field. During his senior year, he was named Honorable Mention All-American, as a shooting guard on his Upper Arlington High School basketball team.

But his true destiny in life began at age ten, when his father, who was suffering from a foot injury, started playing golf as therapy to try and strengthen his weak ankle. Charlie took William with him to the Scioto Country Club for his first golf outing and William responded by shooting a 51 for the first nine holes he ever played. This future Hall of Fame player would soon change the game of golf forever.

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Jack William Nicklaus soon became the talk of Ohio amateur golf. At age 12, he won the first of five straight Ohio State Junior Amateur titles. At age 13, he broke 70 at the Scioto Country Club for the first time, and two years later at age 15, he shot a 66. By the time he had turned 17, he had won 27 golf tournaments in the Ohio area, including the Ohio Open at age 16. During the third round of play he shot a 66, beating a field that included professional golfers.

From 1957-1961, he attended Ohio State University where he won the U.S. Amateur title in 1959 and 1961. But his biggest college honor came that year when he won the NCAA Championship Title. In 1962, Jack toyed with the idea of remaining an amateur like his idol Bobby Jones, playing in only select tournaments against top professional golfers.

He also wanted to win the Masters as an amateur, but starting a family and paying bills soon made him turn pro.

It would take a full page to go through all his titles and honors over his entire forty-four year career, but here is one story about the “Golden Bear” you might not have heard. Jack and his wife Barbara were family friends with Mary Lou and William Smith, who had a young son named Craig. Craig was a big fan of golf, loved the color yellow (which was the color of the flags at The Masters), but he would never play golf. At age eleven, Craig was diagnosed with bone cancer.

Jack told Craig that he would wear yellow in every tournament to honor his friendship. It would be their secret, a tribute to a great kid fighting for his life. Craig would know Jack was thinking of him each time he saw his idol wear a yellow shirt or sweater on TV. On June 7, 1971, Craig passed away and Jack, along with both families and friends, were heartbroken. He had lost a friend and his biggest fan.

During the next 15 years, Nicklaus’ career had its peaks and valleys. He shied away from the color yellow and at age forty-six, Jack was not given any chance to win the 1986 Masters. Many sports writers thought he was done as a professional golfer and should retire to the broadcast booth, but Nicklaus found his youth again with the help of his late friend Craig. Taking a four shot deficient into the final round on Sunday, Nicklaus wore a yellow shirt to honor and remember his special friend. On the back nine, Jack shot an astounding 30, with an eagle and two birdies on three of the final four holes to win the tournament by one stroke over Tom Kite and Greg Norman.

While the golf world cheered the aging star who found his youth on a special day, Mary Lou and William Smith watched TV and cried tears of joy for their memory of Craig and his friend.

19th Hole trivia

• Watch for Nicklaus in the 1986 Masters highlights wearing a yellow shirt and sinking a birdie putt on hole number seventeen (Thinking of Craig).

• The Golden Bear never graduated from Ohio State because he turned pro during his senior year. In 1972, Ohio State granted him an honorary doctorate degree.

• He entered the Golf Hall of Fame in 1972.

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