Homecoming King: Bobby Nichols

Provided by Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Bobby Nichols’ house is at the end of a cul-de-sac near the clubhouse for Fiddlesticks Country Club, where he is the chairman emeritus of the Bobby Nichols Fiddlesticks Charity Foundation. His home looks like the typical residence of a retiree enjoying the fruits of a successful career.
Step inside the front door and make a quick right turn and the memorabilia on the walls belies his success in his chosen vocation. Golf clubs and the blue leather staff bag from his 1967 Ryder Cup appearance rest against the wall. Plaques, letters and photographs – dozens of them – cover almost every square inch of the walls surrounding a pool table. The bounty from his dozen PGA TOUR wins range from a soapstone sculpture for winning the 1974 Canadian Open to a pistol earned for claiming the Showdown Classic with partner Curt Byrum.
After Nichols won the 1970 Dow Jones Invitational, the PGA TOUR’s first $300,000 event, a newspaper story confused him with Bobby Jones. The Masters founder – and lifelong amateur – sent a letter to Nichols that reads: “I hope you don’t mind too much the mistaken identification. At any rate, you’ve got the money.” Nichols had the letter framed, another of his prized pieces on display.
A Munsingwear advertisement featuring Nichols and Bob Hope speaks to Nichols’ level of celebrity nearly a half-century ago. There’s a picture of his annual foursome from the old Crosby Clambake (now the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am) that featured Nichols, Glen Campbell, Raymond Floyd and Clint Eastwood, as well as other photographs of Nichols with celebrities ranging from Willie Nelson to Paul “Bear” Bryant.
One of the most conspicuous artifacts is the one that represents Nichols’ biggest achievement. The miniature replica of the Wanamaker Trophy stands approximately 12 inches high – the real thing is more than 2 feet tall and weighs 27 pounds – and rests on the top shelf of a book shelf, sandwiched between two colorful, ceramic trophies.
Nichols received the trophy 50 years ago for winning the PGA Championship. It was his lone major-championship victory, and it came over a leaderboard laden with World Golf Hall of Fame members. Nichols shot 9-under 271 to finish three shots ahead of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Palmer won his seventh, and final major, at that year’s Masters and needed only the PGA title to complete the career Grand Slam. The ’64 PGA was held in Nicklaus’ backyard, at Columbus (Ohio) Country Club.
Of the six players who finished under par, three are in the Hall of Fame: Palmer, Nicklaus and Ken Venturi, winner of that year’s U.S. Open. Nichols played with a then-52-year-old Ben Hogan in the PGA’s final round.
The victory was impressive not because of who Nichols beat, but also the odds he overcame to win one of golf’s Grand Slam events. The son of a blue-collar family, Nichols started playing golf after getting a job as a caddie at Audubon Country Club (he also sold vegetables door-to-door, earning a quarter for a successful sale). He nearly died in a car accident in high school before winning the Kentucky state high school championship, then played for Texas A&M after receiving a football scholarship from famed coach Paul “Bear” Bryant (more on that later). He was an assistant pro before joining the PGA TOUR.
Nichols is in Louisville, Kentucky — site of this week’s PGA Championship – for celebrations to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of his achievement. But not all the celebrations pertained to golf, namely his 60th high school reunion.
The 78-year-old Nichols was born and raised in Louisville and is one of the city’s sporting legends. He’s the finest golfer to come out of Louisville; a nine-hole course bearing his name is located just 30 miles from Valhalla, the host course for the PGA Championship.
On Sunday, the city gave him an honor reserved for its most famous residents, such as Muhammad Ali and Colonel Sanders. A large photographic mural of Nichols is being displayed on the side of a downtown building as part of the Louisville’s Hometown Heroes program.