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The Loop

The Loop

What prompted Jack Nicklaus to give up on the idea of being a career amateur

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November 17, 2016

Prior to qualifying school being the way onto the pro tour, the time to turn professional was often in late fall when amateurs had completed their “regular” golf season and could turn their thoughts to playing any off-season pro tournaments prior to the PGA Tour’s regular schedule starting in January of the following year.

Jack Nicklaus followed that approach 55 years ago this month. In the Golf World issue dated Nov. 17, 1961, a cover blurb teased the story “Jack Nicklaus a Pro: Greatest amateur will play for pay.”

Just inside on page 2, a two-column story began with the news Nicklaus—“the world’s greatest amateur”—had gone pro by sending the USGA a letter by airmail on Nov. 7, in which he said he was applying for membership in the PGA of America. The next day he had Columbus, Ohio reporters Kaye Kessler and Paul Hornung come to his home to tell them the news that he had sent the letter off.

Earlier in ’61, Nicklaus had won the U.S. Amateur for the second time, and annihilated the field at the World Amateur Team event at Merion. He had performed better than anyone else, pro or am, in the 1960 and 1961 U.S. Opens combined. He had led the American squad in the 1959 and 1961 Walker Cup matches and had won the 1961 NCAA title.

The Golf World story proclaimed that with Nicklaus going pro, the Grand Slam feat of Bobby Jones in 1930 was no longer threatened and inferred the amateur ranks might not recover, the idea of a career amateur dominating the game seemingly exhausted. Jones had said Nicklaus was capable of duplicating his feat of winning two Opens and two Amateurs in the U.S. and Britain, and he had urged Jack to remain an amateur.

There had been some feeling on Nicklaus’ part to do so. His father owned drugstores in Columbus, and Jack had been studying pharmacy at Ohio State. Married in 1960 and by his announcement a father of one, Jack had also been pursuing insurance as a career. Even after winning the ’61 U.S. Amateur in September, he maintained he would remain an amateur.

But in making his announcement, Nicklaus said the reason why he should turn pro was “due to several sources of income available to me at the professional level, it would be unfair to my family not to accept.” Not only had Nicklaus realized he could make good money in tournament play, but the agent he would first work with, Mark McCormack, had told him he could expect endorsement income to be at least $100,000 during his first professional year.

Shortly after the announcement, playing invitations came in. Nicklaus made his pro debut in early December in an exhibition with Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer at the Country Club of Miami. Fifty-five years later, Jack easily solved the income dilemma and also took care of his legacy desire to be the best he could be at golf at the same time by sitting at No. 1 all-time for major championship victories and No. 3 for tour victories.