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How Jack Nicklaus' legend grew at historic Baltusrol

Jack Nicklaus checks out a plaque dedicated to him at Baltusrol's 18th tee in 2005. There's also a marker on the 18th fairway at the spot from which Nicklaus hit a memorable 1-iron in 1967. Ron Antonelli/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

The giants of golf need stages big enough to accommodate the outsize deeds that define them.

For Jack Nicklaus, those stages were Augusta National, where he won six Masters titles; the Old Course at St. Andrews, where he won two British Opens; and a less-heralded course about 20 miles west of lower Manhattan.

Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield Township, New Jersey, has its own history. Its two courses were designed by A.W. Tillinghast just two years after Tillinghast was present at the 1916 founding of the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA).

Bobby Jones played on Tillinghast's course in Springfield. So did Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer and, later, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

The present greats of the game -- including Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth -- are scheduled to appear at Baltusrol for the PGA Championship, which starts Thursday. They will try to make their own golf history on a course where it's still possible to hear echoes of past legends.

Jones.

Hogan.

Palmer.

But mostly Nicklaus, whose legend was established and reinforced on the Lower Course at Baltusrol.

"Is it the toughest of the golf courses? Probably not," Nicklaus told ESPN.com recently. "Is the quality of golf as good? It's a matter of debate, but I think it's very good. They are all different. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Since I've won multiple victories at Augusta National, St. Andrews and Baltusrol, all three of them are fantastic golf courses to me."

Nicklaus won two U.S. Open championships at Baltusrol, one as an in-his-prime 27-year-old in 1967 and one as a fading 40-year-old in 1980. Each of those titles served as significant mileposts on Nicklaus' journey from Ohio to golf's Mount Rushmore.

'White Fang' and a 1-iron

In 1967, Nicklaus was viewed by many golf fans as an unwelcome challenger to Palmer's unquestioned eminence. The two had dueled on courses all around the world, all through the 1960s. In the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, Nicklaus put the matter to rest. And he did so in historic, unforgettable fashion.

Nicklaus earned that championship, his seventh career major, by playing four rounds of consistently brilliant golf. His secret weapon was a putter that he'd possessed for only a few days. It had belonged to a man named Fred Mueller, who was friends with touring pro (and future PGA Tour commissioner) Deane Beman.

Nicklaus wasn't happy with his putting during a practice round. Beman suggested trying "White Fang," an old Bulls Eye putter that Mueller had painted white. Nicklaus figured it was worth a shot. He tried a few putts with it and liked it, but decided he wanted to improve the grip. Nicklaus talked about that putter and the 1967 U.S. Open during an interview conducted by the PGA last year.

"I remember Deane putting a pencil down behind the grip and making a pistol grip," he said. "He broke the pencil off. We wound the leather around the shaft, and that was my putter grip."

Using the putter, Nicklaus played well enough to win the U.S. Open. But it was another club, a 1-iron, that elevated Nicklaus' performance to the realm of legendary.

Nicklaus and Palmer were paired together for the final round. The pair, along with defending champion Billy Casper, entered Sunday tied for second, one shot behind then-amateur Marty Fleckman. By the time Nicklaus and Palmer approached the 18th hole, the tournament belonged to Nicklaus. He had a three-shot lead on Palmer. More than that, though, he had a chance to break Hogan's record for best score in a U.S. Open.

To break the record, Nicklaus needed a birdie on the final hole. That wasn't looking too promising when he hit his tee shot into some rough. The ball landed in a rut that had been left behind by a golf cart.

"I had to chop it out of there," Nicklaus said. "Didn't chop it very far -- left myself with 237 yards or something like that into the green, uphill, into the wind, with an approaching thunderstorm."

Nicklaus decided to use his 1-iron, figuring it was his best shot to get the ball onto the green and give himself a chance to break Hogan's record.

"So I hit it and I just nailed it," Nicklaus said. "I pushed it just a touch, hit it right over the bunker and onto the green. I made about a 22-foot putt to break Hogan's record. And I won by four over Arnold.

"That was a great tournament for me. I played well. It was a love affair with Baltusrol."

'Jack is back'

It was a love affair that wasn't really reciprocated until 1980. By the time he got to that year's U.S. Open at Baltusrol, Nicklaus hadn't won a tournament in almost two years. He had failed to make the cut the week before.

"In 1980, I worked harder than ever to get my game back, and I was rewarded for it," Nicklaus told ESPN.com. "Obviously, I played very well in 1967. I broke Hogan's record and beat Arnold coming down the stretch. Both were very good, but 1980 was my fourth [win at the] U.S. Open, and I think it was pretty special."

Nicklaus played brilliantly in 1980. He shot a 63 on the first day. So did Tom Weiskopf, but Weiskopf shot 75 or higher on each of the next three days. Nicklaus remained locked in. Going into the final day, he was tied with Isao Aoki.

Nicklaus shot a 68, beating Aoki by two strokes. His total of 272 for the tournament was a U.S. Open record that has since been matched but not surpassed. Nicklaus' fourth U.S. Open title tied him with Hogan, Jones and Willie Anderson for most at the event.

This time around, the crowd showed Nicklaus the appreciation he hadn't experienced back in 1967. Then, Arnie's Army held up signs telling "Fat Jack" to hit the ball into the rough. Palmer got roars of approval, while Nicklaus, the usurper, got only polite applause.

But 1980 was different. As Nicklaus walked up the final fairway, he heard chants from the gallery: "Jack is back, Jack is back."

Stuart Wolffe, now Baltusrol's official historian, was in the crowd as a teenage fan in 1980. He remembers chanting and then seeing the scoreboard light up with the words: Jack is back.

Nicklaus won two more major championships after the 1980 U.S. Open, completing his record 18 career majors.

"Do I think it could have been more? Yes," he said. "But could it probably have been less? Yes. When you have 19 seconds and nine third-place finishes -- with that many times sitting at the gate and the chance to win -- you look back and say, 'Gee, I had quite a few more I could have won, but I didn't.'

"I'm proud of my record. I think most records will get broken at one time or another, and I don't imagine this will be any different."

Nicklaus still had some great golf left in him in 1980, but an awful lot of great golf was behind him, and it had become intertwined with so much of the game's history. When Nicklaus broke Hogan's record in 1967, Hogan was still playing. He was at Baltusrol for that tournament and finished tied for 34th.

It took a U.S. Open record for Nicklaus to outduel Palmer in 1967 and another record to top Aoki in 1980. A quarter-century later, during the 2005 PGA Championship, Phil Mickelson had a chance to put the tournament away on Baltusrol's 18th hole. Before his second shot, Mickelson reached out with his 4-wood and tapped a plaque that commemorates the spot of Nicklaus' famous 1-iron in 1967.

Mickelson won, and the long line of Baltusrol history -- of golf history -- remained unbroken.

"From my perspective and on my list, sure, Baltusrol is on a level with Augusta National and St. Andrews," Nicklaus said.

A giant needs a worthy stage, and for Nicklaus, Baltusrol was just that.