When Jack Nicklaus came to Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course in 1980 for the 62nd playing of the PGA Championship, he had already reclaimed his spot on a pedestal atop the golf world.
After failing to capture a single PGA Tour win during the 1979 season, marking the first time that had happened since he joined the Tour in 1962, there were whispers that the game had passed the Golden Bear by. Many were looking to a corps of younger players that included Fuzzy Zoeller and Seve Ballesteros, both of whom captured majors during the ‘79 campaign, to dominate the game’s mantle.
But Nicklaus ended any premature talk about his demise when he posted an impressive victory at Baltusrol in the U.S. Open during the spring of 1980. And after securing his first major of a new decade, Nicklaus came to Oak Hill, a course he had long appreciated, with a chance to secure a fifth PGA Championship and a 17th major.
But to understand the origins of his passion and desire to win the Wanamaker Trophy, one needs to step back 30 years earlier, when the 1950 PGA Championship was held at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, where the Nicklaus family had a membership.
With the help of his teacher, Scioto’s head professional Jack Grout, a 10-year-old Nicklaus gained access to the locker room to meet many of the stars of the game, including acquiring autographs from Hall of Famer Sam Snead, eventual champion Chandler Harper, who had been assigned to father Charlie Nicklaus’s locker, and most memorably Lloyd Mangrum.
“I can still see that slim, dark figure sitting at a table with a fan of cards in one hand and a glass of hooch in the other and a cigarette dangling from his lips, and recall how intimidated I was when he turned to me and gave me that famous tough look of his and snarled, ‘Whaddya want, kid?’ ” Nicklaus wrote in My Story, his 1997 autobiography. “But he signed my autograph book, and I remember being extremely proud of my courage in standing up to such a fearsome character.”
Nicklaus often has credited that experience with shaping his desire to be a professional golfer when he grew up.
By the time he came to Oak Hill, courage and Nicklaus were synonymous. Perhaps the most intriguing piece of perspective in what was a truly dominant performance during the 1980 event was Nicklaus’ inaccuracy off the tee. After looking sharp through the first few months that summer, the Ohio native sprayed the ball around a course that demands precision.
He had one secret weapon, however — a putter that was almost as hot as Western New York temperatures that climbed into the 90s.
“Prior to the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, I had played pretty well that year,” Nicklaus said. “Unfortunately, going into that tournament, I started hitting the ball poorly. And frankly, I hit the ball poorly all week. But my putter was fantastic. I ran the tables with my putter.”
Nicklaus opened the tournament with rounds of 70 and 69, and he first trailed leader Craig Stadler and then Dr. Gil Morgan, who took the lead at the tournament’s midpoint.
In the third round, however, Nicklaus was scintillating on the greens, making up for wayward shots by draining a multitude of important putts. By the end of the day, he’d gone from a stroke down to up three on Lon Hinkle.
“I hit the ball all over the place,” he later said. “And when you hit the ball all over the place and still shoot 66 that’s pretty good.”
On Sunday, with a commanding lead, the Golden Bear coasted home to a comfortable win over runner-up Andy Bean, who finished seven shots behind. His margin of victory was the best in PGA Championship history until surpassed by Rory McIlroy’s effort at the Ocean Course of the Kiawah Island Golf Resort.
With the win, Nicklaus earned his fifth and final Wanamaker trophy, locking him in a tie with hometown hero Walter Hagen for the all-time PGA Championship record. He would only go on to win one more major, the 1986 Masters.
Nicklaus has heaped praise on the course through the years, one that ranks 42nd on Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list, just a single spot behind Southern Hills, which hosted the 2022 PGA Championship.
“Oak Hill is a beautiful, northern, tree‑lined, softly‑rolling piece of property that was very enjoyable to play. It’s a good test,” Nicklaus said. “Nobody has ever really chewed it apart, and it’s one you’ve got to play smart on, but you’ve got to control your golf ball, and you’ve also got to putt, because the greens are not easy greens.”
Golfweek’s Adam Schupak contributed to this report.