After honing his game at Scioto Country Club in the 1950's Jack Nicklaus went on to win the U.S. Amateur in '59 and '61, his first U.S. Open in '62 (over Arnold Palmer, no less) and then completed the career grand slam in '66.
Though Big Jack later went on to found his own equipment company that would produce modern oversized clubs, Nicklaus won all of his majors with gear that was about as traditional as you can get, which isn't surprising considering the era in which he learned the game.
But while persimmon drivers, forged irons and wound golf balls were the norm for the Golden Bear his sticks were hardly "off the rack," models. As you might imagine he was very particular about the clubs he played and he didn't change much over the years other than the addition of a new putter here and there. Below you can learn a bit about some of Nicklaus' most noteworthy weapons over the years, almost all of which you can find in The Jack Nicklaus Museum located on the Ohio State campus.
MacGregor Tommy Armour SS1W Eye-O-Matic 60 Driver
Nicklaus, like many greats of the day, was partial to MacGregor persimmon drivers in the 50's and early 60's. Though the impressive craftsmanship that produced this beautiful club didn't contain a ton of technology, it was a unique hunk of wood that featured a medium-deep face and rock-hard leather grips that Nicklaus preferred. In this era each driver was a little different from the others, due to the hand crafting involved in the manufacturing process, so when a player found one they liked they stuck with it. The Golden Bear was no exception and he played his SS1W from 1960 to 1966, taking home the '61 U.S. Amateur, the '62 U.S. Open, the '63 and '65 Masters and the '63 PGA Championship along the way. What was somewhat unique about this particular persimmon driver was that Nicklaus used it to win the long drive contest at the '63 PGA Championship with a blast of 341 yards. Not bad for a persimmon wood and wound, liquid-filled golf ball. It's also interesting to note the abuse the young and powerful Nicklaus imparted on it -- during the '61 season he broke the face insert nine times and eventually put an end to its life by breaking the neck in '66.
White Fang Putter
This somewhat mythical flatstick, which Nicklaus used to win the '67 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, was actually just a traditional Bulls Eye putter that was painted white. As the story goes, Nicklaus was struggling on the greens coming into the tournament and had apparently brought a slew of putters with him, none of which were working particularly well. While trying to work out his woes on the practice green prior to the tournament his pal Deane Beman (yes, the one-time PGA Tour Commissioner), who favored Bulls Eye putters, lent Nicklaus one to try. Nicklaus liked the club so much he decided he wanted to use a Bulls Eye in the tournament, and though he didn't actually use Beman's, he got a close replica from one of Beman's friends. The only difference was the putter head had been painted white to reduce glare from the sun. Not surprisingly, The Golden Bear's hunch was right and he went on to shoot 275 for the tournament, which was a new U.S. Open scoring record.
An interesting tidbit about the White Fang is that it was lost for quite a while until it somewhat miraculously showed up one day in the hands of one of his son's friends who had taken it as a loner, not aware of the club's significance. Like most of Nicklaus' other famous clubs, White Fang now rests in The Jack Nicklaus Museum at Ohio State.
MacGregor Tommy Armour 945W Driver
Made in 1955, this was arguably The Golden Bear's favorite driver of all. He played it from '76 to '90 and used it to capture what is considered by some to be his greatest major title -- the '86 Masters. He also won the '78 British Open, '80 U.S. Open and '80 PGA Championship with his trusty 945W. The club, which was persimmon with a mahogany finish, was built with the original MacGregor red and white face insert. Many drivers from this period featured fiber or aluminum face inserts, but Nicklaus, ever the traditionalist, eschewed both. According to Jack Wullkotte, Nicklaus's personal clubmaker starting in '62, Nicklaus' 945W featured a weight in the butt-end of the grip that functioned as a counterweight.
"I was working at the Tony Penna Company at the time and Jack brought his driver in for repairs, which he always did even when I wasn't with MacGregor any longer. I worked on it and weighed it and the swingweight was D6. I knew Jack liked D3 so I pulled the grip off and found a wooden dowel with lead in it that counterweighted the club to bring the swingweight down. They did it so they didn't have to drill any weight out of the head, which could change the feel of the club. When I told Jack he said just do it the same way since he liked that driver so much. Later he decided to do it with his 945 3-wood, which he used for close to 30 years. People think he also counterweighted his irons but he didn't."
The effect for Jack was a club that had plenty of mass in the head without feeling overly heavy, which also helped him produce the powerful fade he favored throughout his career. Though Nicklaus had many drivers built for him with the same design as his beloved 945W, he continued to play the same individual stick up until he finally switched to a metal driver at some point in 1990.
According to the now 85-year-old Wullkotte, who still works three days a week at Club Masters in North Palm Beach, one thing Nicklaus did change was the length of his driver.
"Jack told me he was tired of hitting first, meaning he was getting outdriven by some of the guys on Tour. He always used a 43" driver so I suggested we try a longer shaft. We experimented with several shafts lengths until he decided on a 43.5" length. We also changed the loft on his old 945, which was originally around 10.5-degrees. I knocked it down to about 9.5 and in combination with the slightly longer shaft he picked up some distance."
MacGregor Limited Edition Irons
Just like his woods, when it came to irons Nicklaus didn't like to change things too often. According to Wullkotte, The Golden Bear basically played an iteration of the classic Pro-81 MacGregor forging for much of his career with Dynamic S shafts and then Dynamic Gold X100 shafts when they were developed.
Says Wullkotte, "All his iron shafts had a five inch tapered wooden dowel in the tip end of the shaft - they drove them in with an air hammer. They were called, "neutralizers," because in theory they absorbed shock and dampened vibration. Though MacGregor eventually stopped using them Jack insisted I continue to put them in his iron shafts. I continued to do that way up into the 90s until Jack started his own company and I quit doing it."
Nicklaus also favored very firm leather wrap grips with paper underlisting held on by tar tape. According to Wullkotte, Nicklaus was very particular about his leather wrapped grips and was extremely concerned that they be the exact right size, which was 1/64 over standard size. The actual iron model that The Golden Bear used in his historic run to the Green Jacket in '86 was a prototype of what would become the Limited Edition 20th Anniversary Muirfield MacGregor model.
MacGregor Response Putter
If you watched the '86 Masters you surely noticed Nicklaus wielding what looked like a giant hunk of metal on the putting green. That oversized putter was a MacGregor Response 615 that he picked up earlier in the year. Designed by TaylorMade's Clay Long, who worked at MacGregor for 20 years, the outsized Response was an early high MOI model that the folks at the company weren't sure would sell. According to Long, Nicklaus just happened to be in the offices at MacGregor when Long took the opportunity to ask a legend his opinion on the prototype.
"When he first saw it he looked at it and thought it was a joke," says Long, "I had to tell him it was a real putter and that it had a lot of stability before I asked him to try it."
Nicklaus proceeded to roll some putts on the carpet and asked Long to send a few prototypes to his house. Though Long assumed Nicklaus wouldn't consider using his new design he received a call a few weeks later in which Nicklaus deemed the club, "not bad at all," and a suggestion that MacGregor should indeed bring the club to market.
A few months later Nicklaus rolled into Augusta National with a black painted Response (the prototypes were gray) and proceeded to make history by becoming the oldest winner in Masters history. MacGregor, who typically only sold about 6,000 putters in a year, ended up selling about 150,000 Response putters in '86 and another 200,000 in '87. So the '86 Masters wasn't just a historic win for The Golden Bear but also a windfall for MacGregor Golf.
Nicklaus' Response putter is that it's one of his few historically significant clubs that disappeared and has yet to turn up.
Special thanks to Jack Wullkotte, Stephen Auch of The Jack Nicklaus Museum and Clay Long for their help with this story.