By Marla Ridenour
and Jason Lloyd
Beacon Journal sports writer
Jack Nicklaus played in his first professional tournament, the 1958 Rubber City Open, at Firestone Country Club as he and future wife Barbara drove back and forth from Columbus each day.
He won seven times in Akron, including the 1975 PGA Championship, one of his 18 majors.
He remembers being carried off the practice tee at the 1981 World Series of Golf when his back went out.
But Nicklaus enjoyed one of his most emotional evenings at Firestone on Wednesday night, when he was honored by Northern Ohio Golf Charities as the 2013 Ambassador of Golf.
The award is presented annually at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational to a person who has fostered the ideals of the game internationally and whose concern for others extends beyond the golf course.
At a ceremony at the first tee, attended by a few hundred fans and those joining Nicklaus at the reception that followed, Nicklaus was introduced by Barbara, chosen as ambassador in 1990. Her tribute left him choked up as he reached the podium. He wiped away tears again when he finished.
“I want to thank you again … I do it every time,” he said in closing, unable to hold back his emotions, “for a wonderful recognition, something at a place that I love and a game I love.”
“Love you, Jack,” one man yelled during Nicklaus’ 15-minute remarks.
Nicklaus recalled the 1958 tournament, which he played when he was 18. He said his father bought a box of cigars for Charlie Sifford, Nicklaus’ playing partner the first two days, and the elder Nicklaus and Sifford became close friends. Nicklaus said reigning U.S. Open champion Tommy Bolt tried to intimidate him as they walked down the first fairway in the third round.
“He was 1 shot behind me,” Nicklaus said of Bolt. “I remember Tommy putting his arm around me and saying, ‘Don’t you worry, Jackie Boy, old Tommy will take care of you.’ He was giving me the business right off the bat. I missed six 3-foot putts the front nine. Tommy didn’t bother with me; he got rid of me fast on the front nine. It’s part of the education of a golfer.”
Nicklaus said he played with Julius Boros in the final round and imitated his “beautiful swing” for two weeks afterward. The tournament was won by Art Wall Jr.
On the way back to Columbus after one of those rounds, Nicklaus remembered a conversation he had with Barbara, whom he met in 1957 and married in 1960.
“I said to her, ‘Golly, can you believe the dumb shot I played pitching into the 13th green?’ She thought about it and said, ‘13th hole, I’m supposed to remember the 13th hole? I’m supposed to remember what kind of shot he hit? This is never going to work.’ ”
After the honor was announced in early June, Barbara Nicklaus said she never mentioned to Jack that she was chosen 23 years before him.
“He’s really been pretty funny about it,” she said. “The jokes are only coming from his side.”
What’s in your bag?
All weekend long, the Beacon Journal is asking golfers what they keep in their golf bag. First up is Boo Weekley, who said he keeps anywhere from 10 to 12 balls in his bag per round.
Favorite club? “It used to be my driver, but right now I’d have to say my putter, Versa Odyssey.”
Carry any food or beverages during your round? “Nope, water.”
How do you mark your ball? “I just write my boys’ name on it. I try to play with six balls a round. I just put a dot on it. I just do their initials, TP, which is my oldest boy, Thomas Porter, and my youngest boy’s Aiden O’Neal, I write AO.
Rory McIlroy thought his fifth-place finish here last year ignited his tremendous finish to last season, when he won three times in five weeks, including a victory in the PGA Championship.
After an inconsistent season, McIlroy is hopeful he can duplicate that this year.
“Last year I finished fifth here, and that gave me a lot of confidence to go on to the PGA and obviously play the way I did,” he said. “I was sitting up here this time last year probably not feeling as if my game was in great shape, and I’m sitting up here this year a lot more positive. So that’s a great sign.”
The Bridgestone Invitational begins a brutal stretch on the PGA Tour that includes next week’s PGA Championship, the FedExCup playoffs and the President’s Cup. Brandt Snedeker said he prepared by taking four out of five weeks off in April and May and another three-out-of-four week break between the U.S. Open and British Open.
After winning the RBC Canadian Open on Sunday, Snedeker said he didn’t pick up a club for two days. He and wife Mandy took their 2½-year-old daughter Lily and 9-month-old son Austin to the Akron Zoo on Tuesday.
Snedeker said the penguins and the otters were the highlight for Lily.
“She’s still a little depressed they didn’t have a giraffe, but we can go to Cleveland Zoo, I guess,” Snedeker said.
Snedeker said he still hasn’t decided what he is going to get Hunter and Kandi Mahan after the birth of their daughter Zoe early Sunday morning. Mahan was leading the Canadian Open after 36 holes, but withdrew when he received word his wife had gone into labor.
“It’s going to be a nice gift, I’ll tell you that,” Snedeker said.
Snedeker, 32, has six career victories and won nearly $21 million, but doesn’t think he belongs in the category of “best player never to win a major.”
“No, no, I’m still relatively new at this,” he said. “There are still a bunch of guys who have had way better careers than I’ve had that are lacking that one thing. It’s going to be a lot of fun trying. I’ve still got a long ways to go.”
In the weeks following his U.S. Open victory, Justin Rose said one of the most surprising differences is the way people in America differentiate majors from all other victories.
“The golf fan over here, they’ll be calling you ‘champ’ and stuff like that,” Rose said. “In the past if you win a tournament, it would be, ‘Well done last week.’ After winning the U.S. Open, it was, ‘Great win, champ.’ So that really says that you are the champion of the nation for that week, for the year. That’s what surprised me is how they really differentiate it.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Bridgestone Invitational blog at http://www.ohio.com/blogs/bridgestone-invitational. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloyd ABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.