Jeff Svoboda

As the U.S. Senior Open returns to Columbus' Scioto Country Club, the event has plenty of Ohio State ties -- including Jack Nicklaus

Golf's Senior Open is set to be played minutes from Ohio State's campus at a place with plenty of Buckeye and Columbus lore.

Walk down the main hallway at Scioto Country Club that runs from the men’s grill room past the pro shop and restaurant toward the banquet rooms, and you can’t help but notice the history on the wall.

“Jones Wins Open Golf Title by Single Stroke With Great Finish at Scioto” reads the top headline in the New York Times sports section from July 11, 1926, that hangs framed on the wall in one spot. A few feet over hangs the picture of the great Bobby Jones being handed the U.S. Open trophy by United States Golf Association president W.C. Fownes Jr.

Up the hallway, also framed, is an old copy of the Ohio State Journal. “U.S. GOLFERS BLAST WAY TO RYDER CUP WITH 9 TO 3 SCORE” the headline blares, with the subhead of the Americans’ 1931 victory in the international tournament at Scioto declaring “Cup Just ‘Loan,’ British Say.”

Grainy black and white photos dot the walls around the newspapers of the greatest moments in Scioto’s illustrious history. Keep going down the hall toward the pro shop and color is added to the displays – a program cover from the 1950 PGA Championship, for example, or a document signed by every player that took part in the 1968 U.S. Amateur Championship held at the club.

From classic gems like Ohio Stadium and St. John Arena to new masterpieces like Nationwide Arena and Huntington Park, central Ohio is home to some of the most iconic athletics facilities in the nation.

This is also true in the sport of golf. Ohio State’s golf courses – the Scarlet and Gray, routed by Alister MacKenzie, the same man who designed the famed Augusta National – are among the best college golf tracks in the nation, and from Muirfield Village to Double Eagle, it’s not hard to find a highly rated course in the area.

But in many ways, the area’s association with golf at the highest level is represented by a tract of land just west of the Ohio State campus. Take the Lane Avenue Bridge across the Olentangy River, drive past OSU’s intramural athletics fields, and wind your way past the businesses and houses of Upper Arlington and you’ll notice an elevated green patch to your left. You might even see a rolling fairway or two past the trees as you approach the intersection with Riverside Drive along the Scioto River.

The history of golf, nor Ohio State athletics, cannot be spoken of without this historic venue. Opened in 1916, Scioto Country Club has been thought of as one of America’s great golf courses for nearly the entirety of its century-long existence, a credit that will be recognized this year when it hosts the U.S. Senior Open starting Thursday and running through Sunday.

It marks the USGA’s return to Scioto for the first time since the course hosted the same tournament in 1986, and a chance for the club to add to a history that includes creating the greatest champion the game has known.

“I was just walking down the hallway here as I do every time I’m at Scioto, and I’m just blown away by the memorabilia and the championship history that exists,” USGA director of championships Matt Sawicki said in June at a press conference that was also attended by OSU director of athletics Gene Smith and two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin.

“It has been 30 years since we’ve been at Scioto, and I think you’re going to hear from the players, ‘What took you so long?’ This place has been truly phenomenal, and the city of Columbus has supported this championship in a tremendous way.”


A Championship Pedigree

Scioto was the brainchild of noted Scottish architect Donald Ross, who also laid out the famed Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina as well as such notable courses as Aronimink in Pennsylvania, Oak Hill in New York and Inverness in Toledo.

With tree-lined fairways on the front and a more open layout on the back nine, perfectly manicured fairways, devilishly shifting winds, tight rough and small, elevated greens, it is still one of the top 50 courses in the world as rated by Golf Digest and considered a classic American design.

The genius is obvious from the beginning, a par 4 along Riverside Drive to an elevated and heavily bunkered green. No. 2 along the homes that line Club Drive is a bear of a par 4, a hole so respected – with its drive over a ravine to a fairway that slopes up to the putting surface – for so long that it was included in Sports Illustrated’s “Best 18 in America” in 1965.

Hole No. 8 – a par 5 that will be played as a long par 4 at the Senior Open – is a signature hole, with a downhill drive to a sloping fairway leading up to a water hazard that cuts across the fairway then empties into a lake running along the left side of the green. The putting surface sits behind a yawning bunker, with a large chipping area to the right for those who choose to bail out.

The finish should also be dramatic. The 17th is a downhill par 3 over water to a difficult and thin green, and 18 – a hole the legendary Bobby Jones birdied in 1926 to win the Open – is a long par 4 played toward the clubhouse with a massive American flag waving in the background.

“To me, you get on the course and you know the only way you’re going to shoot a good score is to play well,” 2015 Senior Open winner Jeff Maggert said. “Some courses we play are very visually intimidating. They might have a lake or railroad ties or whatever, but the challenge of this course is knowing that every hole – every fairway, every shot to the greens – needs to be performed well or you’re not going to shoot a good score.”

The championship should bring plenty of visibility to the club. The tournament will be televised on Fox and will feature such notable names as John Daly, Hale Irwin, Lee Janzen, Bernhard Langer, Tom Lehman, Rocco Mediate, Colin Montgomerie, Mark O’Meara, Vijah Singh and Tom Watson. For the local crowd, former Buckeyes John Cook, Joey Sindelar and Rod Spittle will be paired together for first two rounds, while Brian Mogg (who won the 1979 national title at OSU with Cook and Sindelar) also is in the field.

The chance to have such competitors return to the course was too much for Scioto to pass up.

“For this to occur, the membership had to agree to it,” said Walt Dennis, an Ohio State golf donor and multiple time club champion at Scioto whose family has been associated with the club for six decades. “The membership realized they do have to give back to the game. We do have a hit of a gem here, and it wouldn’t be fair to keep it to ourselves. We have to share it with the greater golf community.”

It also allows the course to come full circle in many ways. 2016 is the centennial year for the club, and it’s also the 90-year anniversary of the 1926 tournament won by Jones that changed the golf world in many ways.

A local 13-year-old named Charlie Nicklaus followed Jones and watched every shot hit by the champion that year, igniting a love of golf that lived for his entire life – and would later be installed in his son, Jack William Nicklaus.


Jack’s Rise

In the summer of 1953, Bob Hoag was one of the best golfers in the Midwest, not to mention a past club champion at Scioto. As he was playing course one day, a ball bounced between his legs on the fairway after he had hit his second shot to the green.

“Who in the world was that?” Hoag asked, incredulous at the length of the drive.

“That Nicklaus kid,” came the answer.

A noted long hitter himself, Hoag couldn’t help but notice, and Jack Nicklaus would later announce his presence to the golf world with a similarly eager, aggressive nature.

And it was all because of what happened at Scioto. A fine athlete himself, Charlie Nicklaus eventually developed an ankle injury that required surgery. While recovering, he was advised to take on light exercise – a perfect description, in his mind, of the game of golf, and Nicklaus secured a membership to the club. Young Jack began as his caddy but started playing the game for the first time in the spring of 1950 at the age of 10.

“He couldn’t make a game because he couldn’t walk that long,” Nicklaus once told of his late father. “He’d play one hole, we’d stop, and I’d chip and putt and fool around. I was a 10-year-old kid who didn’t know anything. But my dad introduced me to everything. He finally said, ‘Hey, would you like to learn how to play golf?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ So he started me off.”

He shot 51 in his first nine-hole round, then quickly developed an appreciation of the game and its history. In 1950, when the course hosted the PGA Championship, Jack had an experience similar to Charlie’s with Jones a generation earlier.

“I met Sam Snead and got Sam’s autograph,” Nicklaus remembered. “I met Bob Hamilton and Skip Alexander. And I’ll never forget walking up to (1946 U.S. Open winner) Lloyd Mangrum. He had a scotch sitting on the table, cards in one hand and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and he said, ‘What do you want, kid?’ I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Having met many of the game’s top pros, Nicklaus eventually started working to join them. Also a football and basketball player of some skill, he’d golf from sun up to sundown in the summer during his teen years, getting in at least 36 holes and hundreds of practice balls each day at Scioto. In the winter, he and coach Jack Grout would clear the snow off the ground to hit balls – until Grout and Charlie built a covered Quonset hut near the range that included a hitting mat and a heater for the harshest temperatures.

Of course, as the sports world knows, the practice paid off. Nicklaus went on to attend Ohio State, where he won the NCAA individual championship, and then won a record 18 professional majors.

Having learned the game at Scioto, the “Golden Bear” has given back to the club, including helping Dr. Michael Hurdzan in his 2008 re-build of Scioto’s greens, done in an effort to recapture the spirit of Ross’ original design. In addition, he is serving as the honorary chairman for this week's event.

His history at the club is celebrated, something that’s noticed by taking a turn off the main hallway of Scioto toward the front of the building. Follow the hallway as it snakes and to the left you’ll see a dark room with a fine wooden table in the middle.

Photos and memorabilia dot the walls featuring a familiar face. There’s Nicklaus with Grout, hitting balls out of the Quonset hut in the winter chill. There’s a hand-written scoreboard showcasing scores from the club’s junior tournament, with Nicklaus leading the way.

The Nicklaus room was finished within the past few years to honor the local kid who grew up to become a legend. This week, more than 100 of his peers are at Scioto in an effort to add their picture to the wall in the very same building.


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