CRAWFORD | Bobby Nichols takes his place among Louisville legends
Bobby Nichols, the 1964 PGA Champion who will be honored with a "Hometown Heroes" banner today, is at home in the company of legends.
Sunday, August 3rd 2014, 1:37 am EDT by
Sunday, August 3rd 2014, 8:57 am EDT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — They will honor Louisville native Bobby Nichols with his own Hometown Heroes banner alongside the Watterson Expressway Sunday afternoon, and it’s only fitting.
Nichols has always been in the company of legends. The happy timing of this honor comes not only on the 50th anniversary of his winning the PGA Championship, but on the eve of the championship coming to Louisville’s Valhalla Golf Club for the third time. It has, as they say, all worked out for the best.
A 12-time winner on the PGA Tour who not only won a major but played for a Ryder Cup team, Nichols didn’t start playing golf until age 13, and that only after he was introduced to the game as a caddy at the age of 9 in 1945, and carried bags and later worked in the pro shop at Audubon Country Club, where he caddied for a Louisvillian named Pee Wee Reese.
“Back in our day, we didn’t have any swing coaches or anything, but the players you caddied for were who molded you into how you swing,” Nichols said in an interview with WDRB on Sunday. “And Pee Wee Reese, I caddied for quite often back in the forties there at Audubon, whenever he’d come home from the baseball season or got a break or two, he’d get me to caddy for him, which was nice. And he was such a good golfer, in addition to being a great baseball player, he was about a one to two handicap all the time, and he loved the game and loved to play. And that was a treat for me just to watch him swing a golf club.”
At St. Xavier High School, Nichols began to hone the game he had started learning. Off the course, he hung out with another young Louisville athlete, Paul Hornung.
“We double-dated,” Nichols said. “We were good friends.”
Nichols won the Kentucky state championship as a high school senior, but an auto accident left him wondering what he would do for college when another brush with a legend happened. Paul “Bear” Bryant was leaving the University of Kentucky and heading to Texas A&M. He was a friend of the football coach at St. X, Johnny Meihaus, who contacted Bryant on Nichols’ behalf.
Bryant liked Meihaus, and said he would bring Nichols in on a football scholarship. That’s how Nichols enjoyed a full-ride for four years at Texas A&M. He went to see the legendary football coach upon arriving on campus, and said Bryant told him only to stop by football practice and see the boys sometime, then stopped him on the way out of that meeting with one more admonition, “Hit the books.”
“I owe him so much,” Nichols said. “He was so good to me.”
Later, after Bryant became coach at Alabama, he took up the game of golf and Nichols worked with him, and played in more than a dozen Pro-Am tournaments over the years.
“I probably got to know him better than most people,” Nichols said. “I can’t say enough for what he did for me.”
Nichols was a powerful golfer before John Daly hit it big with the long ball. His winning score of 271 in the 1964 PGA Championship was the low score in the event for 30 years. He didn’t beat any slouches to win it, either. The runner-ups that year? Jack Nicklaus, who had won the PGA Championship for the first time a year earlier, and Arnold Palmer. They finished three strokes back.
Again, in the company of legends.
“I was fortunate to play when I did,” Nichols said. “We got to play with the best of the best, besides Jack and Arnold and Gary Player and Gay Brewer and Lee Trevino, and Tom Watson, we played with Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, Tommy Bolt, Cary Middlecoff, you could go on and on, it was incredible how many great players there were. In 1964, I won two tournaments with Mr. Hogan as a playing partner, the PGA, and the World Open and when I was paired there with Mr. Hogan, so it doesn’t get any better than that. I won my first tournament in 1961 with Cary Middlecoff, he was one of the top players, won over 42 golf tournaments, and he helped me a great deal, just listening to him, and Tommy Bolt. And I played maybe 15 practice rounds with Mr. Hogan and you couldn’t ask for more than that. I’ll always cherish being able to play with those players.”
He said he saw Hogan when checking out of the Radisson Hotel outside Detroit after he’d won the Carling World Open in Oakland Hills, Mich., a tournament in which they’d been paired together in ’64, and Hogan said, “You ought to pay me to play with you.”
Nichols said, “Mr. Hogan I don’t know what it would cost, but I’d sure try.”
Nichols won $18,000 for taking the PGA Championship in 1964. This year’s winner will take home $1.8 million. But he says he wouldn’t trade the money for the experience he had of playing when he did, against the competition he faced, and the friends he made.
“I wouldn’t trade our time for any of today’s time,” Nichols said. “We used to hang out together, in the golf shops and locker rooms and tell stories. The guys today, I don’t envy them one bit. They have a lot of money, but they have very little time to socialize with other players. Some of them do, but not like we used to. We used to hang out, and we were all like brothers. It’s not anything negative. The kids today, it’s pretty hard to get to know each other the way we used to.
“We used to travel together, going from tournament to tournament together, driving. We always had two or more in one vehicle because we drove everywhere, and you get to learn a lot about an individual in traveling together. We all tried to help each other. Players today get along. They just don’t have time to get to know each other the way we did.”
The game, of course, has changed. The equipment is much better. Players are bigger and stronger. But one of the big changes is one Nichols said doesn’t get enough attention — the conditions of the courses.
“It’s amazing the grasses they have now and how nice they can get the golf course groomed,” he said. “It is amazing the difference there. I don’ think it’s been talked about enough. Golf course conditions have been tremendous for scoring. We used to get lies on bare dirt because they didn’t have irrigation, a lot of ugly looking lies.”
And, of course, there’s the money. Nichols won the first $300,000 tournament on the PGA Tour, the Dow Jones Open in New Jersey. (A favorite story of his surrounds a picture of him after winning that tournament. It appeared in The Charlotte Observer, but he was identified as Bobby Jones. Soon after, he got a letter from Jones saying, “Dear Bobby, Congratulations on your win. Sorry for the misidentification. But you have the check.’”
In that time, one motivation for playing well on the tour was landing a spot as a golf pro at a major golf club, which he did when he became the pro at Firestone Country club in 1967, where he remained until 1980. Nichols said six or eight players were trying to land that spot, but that a call from Byron Nelson helped him land the job.
From Firestone in Akron, Ohio, Nichols retired to Florida, where he lives today. He runs a charity that supports wounded veterans and works to get them involved with golf, an effort he has found rewarding and inspiring. He also has done charity work to benefit underprivileged and abused children.
Being back in Louisville, for him, has been a whirlwind.
“I’m loving every minute of it,” he said. “My wife’s friends and family, we haven’t even made a dent. It’s always fun to get back to your hometown. It’s always been my home though I’ve been away a long time. I can’t believe it’s as big as it has gotten.”
He says he owes this place a lot, that his life would never have taken some of the turns it did had he not had the experiences he had, knowing people like Reese and Hornung early in life.
“To be able to grow up with legends like that, it was something special, and I could only have done it being from Louisville, because that’s where they were from,” Nichols said. “It’s been a remarkable time.”
Of those two formative personalities in Nichols’ early life, Reese has a statue on one side of Louisville Slugger Field, while Hornung has one on the other. Nichols has a golf course in the city named after him, and his banner will hang not far from Hornung’s on the Watterson Expressway.
Nichols, it turns out, hasn’t just been in the company of legends. He has been one himself. He should be right at home.
The dedication for the "Bobby's Louisville" banner will be Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Watterson City Building, 1930 Bishop Lane.
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