Oller: Jack Nicklaus recalls Ohio State college days with mix of humor and nostalgia

Jack Nicklaus loved college life. And it loved him back, so much so that the Golden Bear was not about to reveal what shenanigans took place off the golf course.

Me: “Your favorite Ohio State memories, non-golf related? Fraternity stuff?”

Jack: “Non-golf? I would never tell you those.”

After the laughter subsided Tuesday at the Memorial Tournament, Nicklaus began reminiscing about Ohio State, where he spent 3½ years before turning pro. (The Upper Arlington native left school before graduating but received an honorary degree in 1972).

“I had a blast,” he said, a twinkle in his eye. “Parties we went to and things we did and places we went. And (meeting Barbara) was part of it.”

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Nicklaus met Barbara Bash his freshman year. She pledged Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. He joined Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. They married as upperclassmen. They’ve enjoyed one heck of a run since exchanging “I dos” in 1960.

Look hard and you can still see the 18-year-old college kid inside the 83-year-old Nicklaus, who still likes to have fun with people and still possesses classic college-age sarcastic humor. Plus he remains a student of both the game and life. The Bear was born a learner, able to process information into practical application. Methodically thinking his way around the golf course was one of his elite attributes, but he also was smart enough to realize college was not expected to be all brain, no ebullience.

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“I came to Ohio State because I wanted to be part of college life,” he said.

Numerous schools offered Nicklaus a golf scholarship, but his mind was set on becoming a Buckeye.

“I just told them, ‘Don’t bother,’ " he said. "Ohio State doesn’t offer scholarships for golf, but it’s where I was going to go."

Recently in this space I wrote how fortunate OSU is to be able to claim Nicklaus, Archie Griffin and Jesse Owens – a triumvirate of celebrated sportsmen. Griffin (two Heismans) and Owens (Olympic golds and multiple world records) are known for their amateur achievements as students; Nicklaus’ fame comes mostly through his professional career. Golf’s greatest champion holds the record for major championship wins with 18, and his victory at the 1986 Masters, at age 46, remains a top-3 sports moment for many whose hips and knees beg for replacement.

Golf great Jack Nicklaus with trophies, August 25, 1957.  Back of photo ID's him as " Jackie Nicklaus . " Trophy on left says: United States Junior Chamber of Commerce - National Junior Amateur Golf Championship .  Trophy at right says: " US Junior Chamber of Commerce - Champion - International Jaycee Junior , Columbus, Ohio, August 19-24, 1957 - presented by the bottlers of Coca-Cola."  (Columbus Dispatch Photo by GENE WELLS)

Jack’s college career is not as well known, but that does not mean it was unsubstantial. He won the U.S. Amateur twice as an OSU student (1959 and ’61) and also captured the 1961 NCAA individual championship with the Buckeyes.

More than 60 years later, he returned to those more carefree days, if only for a night.

“Last night (Monday) we had 10 of my fraternity brothers up here at the club who were all guys I went to school with,” he began. “Can you believe a bunch of 82, 83 and 84-year-olds having dinner? ‘What did you say? Huh? Huh? Who is that over there? I can’t see ’em.’ It was hysterical. We had a great time.”

Nicklaus arrived at Ohio State planning to follow in the vocational footsteps of his pharmacist father, Charlie.

May 30, 2023; Dublin, Ohio, USA;  Jack Nicklaus answers questions at a press conference during a practice round for the Memorial Tournament at Muirlfield Village Golf Club.

“So I went through three years of pre-pharmacy, but my dad talked me out of pharmacy school,” Nicklaus said. “He said, ‘You can’t use your golf behind a counter. Why don’t you switch over to the business college and use it for that, which I did.”

As for college golf, well, let’s just say Jack took it seriously, but not too seriously. And apparently Ohio State coach Bob Kepler followed suit.

Kepler urged Nicklaus to take the spring quarter off during his sophomore year to focus on playing the Masters, British Amateur and Walker Cup.

“He says, ‘You can play next year, the year after. Don’t worry about that. I want you to go have a great spring,” Nicklaus said. “No golf coach would do that today.”

Few coaches would skip practice to go fly fishing with one of his players, either. But Kepler did.

Nicklaus explains: “Kep started me fly fishing. What he would do is come out and look at the sky and say, ‘Man, this is a beautiful day. It’s too nice a day to go play golf. Why don’t we get those (teammates) started off the first tee and you and I will slip out the back door and go fishing?’

"He knew I was always going to have my golf game in shape. He wasn’t worried about that. So we’d go trout fishing over to Zanesfield and we’d come back and have a couple beers together. We’d catch a few fish, cook them and had a great time.

1962 -- Black and white file photo -- NICKLAUS FAMILY  -- OFF TO PARADE: National Open Champion Jack Nicklaus and his family leave their Upper Arlington (Ohio) home for Jack's triumphal parade in downtown Columbus Friday.  Left to right are: L. C. ( Charlie ) Nicklaus, Jack's father; Jack; Barbara, his wife, and Jack II; Marilyn Nicklaus, his sister; and Mrs. L. C. Nicklaus, his mother.  Other pictures on page 19A.  (Dispatch Photo) *** Date on back of print:   June 22, 1962.  ***

“That was my college life, and it had nothing to do with playing golf. I went to Ohio State and just happened to play golf when I went there.”

Ah, the simple life. Nicklaus doesn’t golf much anymore, but he still enjoys fishing. Still processes information quickly. Still loves to hang with the old gang. The college student from UA remains deep inside, still going strong.


This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Jack Nicklaus knew how to have fun at OSU, on the golf course and off