There is no shortage of memorable moments that have happened to Jack Nicklaus during his remarkable golf career. So many, in fact, that to narrow the list presents its own unique challenge. That’s why we reached out to the Golden Bear himself in the days preceding his 80th birthday to see if he could help us identify the events—be they golf-related or otherwise—that meant the most to him. He obliged, providing this chronological list of the 18 major moments for the 18-time major winner.
1955 U.S. Amateur
After reaching the long 18th hole at the James River Course at the Country Club of Virginia with two shots in his final warm-up for his first U.S. Amateur start, a 15-year-old Nicklaus was told an observer wanted to meet him. It was Bob Jones, in attendance in recognition of the 25th anniversary of his 1930 victory that completed the grand slam. The meeting was the start of a long, close relationship between Jones and Jack, who eight years later won the first of his six Masters titles.
1956 Ohio Open
Against a field of mostly pro golfers, Nicklaus, 16, shot a third-round 64 at Marietta Country Club and held onto his lead that afternoon with a 72 for his first significant title. Between the second and third rounds, Nicklaus also squeezed in an exhibition with Sam Snead at Urbana Country Club.
1959 U.S. Amateur
With an eight-foot birdie putt on the 36th hole at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., Nicklaus, then 19, defeated defending champion Charlie Coe to win the first of his two U.S. Amateur titles. Nicklaus calls this the “real beginning” of his career because at the time the championship was largely still considered a major; it’s why Nicklaus for many years was credited with 20 major titles. Today, of course, his record is 18 professional majors.
1962 U.S. Open
Nicklaus defeated Arnold Palmer in an 18-hole playoff deep in Palmer country at Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh for his first professional win and the first of his four U.S. Open titles. It was the start of the most epic rivalry in golf. When it was over, Palmer remarked, perceptively, “Now that the big guy is out of the cage, everybody better run for cover.”
Nicklaus won his first Masters in 1963, but other than his ’86 victory, the ’65 Masters is special to him. He shot a third-round 64, which he still considers among his finest rounds, and finished with a tournament-record 17-under 271 to beat Arnold Palmer and Gary Player by nine strokes. Equally important was the reception he received from the gallery that year. For the first time, Nicklaus heard cheers and shouts of encouragement. He wrote in his autobiography, My Story, that this change of heart from the public, “was a moving experience, and, I now realize, one of the great turning points in my career.”
1966 Open Championship
It wasn’t just that Nicklaus returned to Muirfield, where he first played in the 1959 Walker Cup, and won his first of three Open Championships to complete the career grand slam. It was how he did it. With long, wispy rough lining narrow fairways, Nicklaus hit his driver just seven times in 72 holes, proving he was more than just a power player.
1967 U.S. Open
In another duel with Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus won his second U.S. Open and broke Ben Hogan’s scoring record with a final-round 65 and 275 total at Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course in Springfield, N.J. On the final hole, Nicklaus hit two memorable shots. First there was the 8-iron out of the rough that dribbled 50 yards followed by a 238-yard 1-iron to 22 feet that Nicklaus converted for the record. The latter is one of three shots (all with a 1-iron) that he considers the best of his career.
1973 PGA Championship
At Canterbury Golf Club in Cleveland, Nicklaus passed his idol, Bob Jones, by capturing his 14th major championship (counting his U.S. Amateur titles) a record he had coveted since he turned pro. Equally memorable that week, his 4-year-old son, Gary, ran onto the putting green at the end of the third round. Nicklaus scooped up the boy in his arms and carried him off. Photographers captured the moment. It is one of Jack’s favorite photos.
Muirfield Village Golf Club opens (1974)
Nicklaus began buying property in the Columbus suburb of Dublin in 1966 with a dream of building a championship golf course and bringing a world-class tournament to his hometown. He named the course Muirfield Village after Muirfield in Scotland, which was such an inspirational element early in his career. Two years after the course opened, the Memorial Tournament appeared on the PGA Tour schedule. Not surprisingly, Bob Jones was the first honoree of the tournament that commemorates significant golf individuals of the past.
1977 Memorial Tournament
So overcome by emotion was Nicklaus after winning the second edition of his own event that the Golden Bear nearly announced his retirement on the spot. His wife, Barbara, wisely talked him out of it. “Never in all my years of wanting to succeed at golf had I ached so badly to win,” he wrote in My Story.
At 46, referred to in one newspaper article as “washed up” and the “Olden Bear,” Nicklaus won his sixth green jacket, his 18th professional major and the last of his 73 PGA Tour titles. With his mother, Helen, in attendance for the first time since he played in his first Masters in 1959, Nicklaus shot 30 on the final nine holes for a closing 65, then watched as Seve Ballesteros, Tom Kite and Greg Norman fail to catch him. He called it, simply, “the most fulfilling” win of his life.
2000 Memorial Tournament
“I created this animal, and now it has come back to me,” Nicklaus said upon learning that the Captains Club of Muirfield Village had selected the Golden Bear as the tournament honoree. Rivals Arnold Palmer and Gary Player were in attendance and offered wonderful tributes. An emotional Nicklaus barely got through his speech without breaking down.
Nicklaus Foundation started (2004)
Primarily the brainchild and initiative of Jack’s wife, Barbara, the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation was created with the mission of addressing the medical needs of children in South Florida. Foundation funds also support Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, which has been the charitable beneficiary of the Memorial Tournament since its inception. To date, the foundation has raised more than $100 million and has resulted in the opening of the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami as well as 17 Nicklaus Children’s outpatient facilities throughout Florida. “It’s changed my life,” Nicklaus said of his work with the foundation.
2005 Open Championship
“I’m just an old man trying to figure out a way to get out of the way,” Nicklaus said as his 65th birthday approached. The R&A gave him a way to end his competitive career, bringing the Open Championship back to St. Andrews a year earlier than planned so the Golden Bear could take one last start at the Home of Golf. Playing partner Tom Watson fought back tears as the Scottish crowds cheered Nicklaus all the way around the Old Course. The three-time Open champion missed the cut but capped the proceedings by making a birdie on the final hole. “I knew that the hole would move wherever I hit it,” Nicklaus joked after a teary wave goodbye.
2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom
For his “contributions to American sport” as well as his overall excellence in golf, Nicklaus was one of 13 recipients to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. Other recipients that year included boxing great Muhammad Ali, entertainers Carol Burnett, Aretha Franklin and Andy Griffith, and baseball player Frank Robinson.
Dotting the 'I' in Script Ohio at Ohio State (2006)
At halftime of Ohio State’s football game against Minnesota on Oct. 26, Nicklaus, wearing a black OSU hat, walked onto the field and dotted the “I” in Script Ohio, the famed formation of the university’s marching band. At the time, Nicklaus, who attended Ohio State and met his wife there while in school, became just the fifth non-band member given the honor, joining luminaries such as Bob Hope and former Buckeyes football coach Woody Hayes. “Ohio State means so much to my life,” a typically teary-eyed Golden Bear said. “Yeah, I’m always an emotional guy, and this is an emotional day.”
2015 Congressional Gold Medal
In recognition of his community service and charitable work, Nicklaus became the seventh athlete to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. Members of both parties of the House of Representatives and the Senate attended the ceremony. Nicklaus joined Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson as golfers who received the medal.
2018 Lincoln Medal
On June 18, at a ceremony at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., that celebrates the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln, Nicklaus completed the grand slam of America’s civilian honors when he became the fourth person in history—and first athlete—to receive the Lincoln Medal. The other three: former First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan, and Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. “Everything that has happened good for me in the game of golf has been because of my family,” Nicklaus said when receiving the honor. “They give my life meaning and purpose.” He added, “I will never be able to repay what the game of golf has given me.”