Pairings don’t get much odder — or more priceless — than Andy Warhol and Jack Nicklaus

July 27, 2019

My bride and I, in Columbus for Jack’s tournament, slipped over to Jack’s museum, on the sidelines of the Ohio State campus. Some place. I spent three minutes just on his left baby footprint. (Twenty years later, man did that heel lift!) There are scores of photos and portraits, magazine covers and sculptures in the Jack Nicklaus Museum. Its last room is a replica of their old family room, in South Florida, with paintings of Jack and Barbara’s five children by a talented illustrator named Coby Whitmore.

But the portrait of Michael, the youngest member of the Nicklaus fivesome, looks unfinished. There are competing theories about why that’s the case, but the leader in the clubhouse is that Mr. Whitmore died before he could. That’s museum life for you. All those little wall placards, with all that authoritative information. But under the carpets, mysteries run wild. Here’s one that keeps Steve Auch, the museum’s curator, up at night. He has clubs from each of Big Jack’s 18 professional major titles — except for Nicklaus’s win in the 1966 British Open at Muirfield.

“In those days, he played MacGregor clubs in the U.S. but Slazengers overseas,” Auch told me. “We think a newspaper, maybe The Scotsman, had a reader contest where you could win the winner’s clubs.” For all Auch knows, those Slazengers are somewhere in greater Edinburgh, in an attic, under a pile of plaid woolen blankets or something. Those in the trade speak of three types of museum visitors: streakers, strollers and scholars. Christine and I were not in the first category. She identified the Baltusrol clubhouse when I could not. Responding to my awe, she said, “We’ve stayed there.” We watched the various movies, considered the various trophies, read the various letters.

Warhol took Polaroids to use as reference when creating his silkscreen portraits, and Jack was a skeptical sitter.
AP Photo

Halfway through, I started to wonder if we’d see one of the Andy Warhol portraits of Nicklaus, or would the man who turned Campbell’s Soup cans into modern art be considered too edgy for the Columbus museum? I had seen one rendition of Warhol’s Nicklaus, a brightly painted silkscreen, 40 inches by 40 inches, with a manipulated photographic image at its center. It stops you in your tracks. That one was hanging in the meet-George-Jetson clubhouse of The Bridge, a golf club on eastern Long Island. The club’s founder, Bob Rubin, bought it at a Sotheby’s auction in 2014 for $200,000, hammer price.

“It’s iconic,” Rubin will tell you. “One of the greatest golfers of the 20th century painted by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.” But when I asked Rubin about Nicklaus’s expression in it, he said, “He looks a little dubious.” There are 15 original 40 x 40 Warhol portraits of Nicklaus, but none at the Nicklaus Museum, much to the curator’s chagrin. I could track down just five: the one at The Bridge, another at the World Golf Hall of Fame, one at the University of Maryland, and two at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, presented as a diptych.

Christine and I stopped in Pittsburgh on the drive home for a look. It’s in a room with other pieces from Warhol’s 1977 Athletes Series. There’s Chris Evert, there’s Willie Shoemaker, there’s O.J. Simpson. There’s Ali. Warhol on Nicklaus is odd and fascinating. The process began with Warhol taking Polaroids of Jack in Ohio. A banker and art collector named Richard Weisman was the matchmaker. When Warhol instructed Nicklaus to move “the stick” on his shoulder (the golf club as prop), Nicklaus said to Weisman, “Does this guy know what he’s doing?”

As it happens, when I talked to Travis Puterbaugh, the World Golf Hall of Fame curator, about his museum’s Warhol, he said, “Nicklaus looks like a guy who knows what he’s doing.” Well, he does. The guy’s bride, Barbara, is an amateur curator. She remembers getting a call, years ago, from LeRoy Neiman, who wanted to borrow the portrait he did of Jack for an exhibition. “He called and asked and said, ‘Just pack it up and ship it off and have it insured for $150,000,’” Barbara told me. “I about fell over.” She knows there are Warhol portraits of her husband out there. The Nicklaus family was supposed to get one, from the artist, by way of thank you, but it never arrived. I mentioned the one at The Bridge and asked Barbara if she wanted me to tell her what it had last sold for. Said Barbara, “I think it would be better if you didn’t.”

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]