DUBLIN, Ohio – Jack Nicklaus isn’t playing golf this week, but in a weird way, the Memorial Tournament becomes more about him with each passing year.
He’ll hate that sentence, of course, because he wants the Memorial to be all about the great golf and eventual champion at Muirfield Village Golf Club in this suburb northwest of Columbus, not him. Arnold Palmer has come and gone, though, and time’s stark reality prompts us to cherish our remaining national treasures more than ever. Nicklaus is one of those.
So is Kaye Kessler. His life’s course was irreparably altered in 1950 when Scioto Country Club hired a new golf professional, Jack Grout, and Kessler was sent over to write a story about him for his newspaper, The Columbus Citizen. The paper’s photographer needed a photo, so Grout posed with a posse of Scioto junior golfers. One was a 10-year-old named Nicklaus.
Kessler enjoyed covering Ohio State football, coached by his pal Woody Hayes, and Ohio State basketball, led by his best friend, coach Fred Taylor. He had no idea that the Nicklaus kid would turn Kessler into his personal biographer through the process of winning 18 major championships. Nicklaus’ exploits, plus Kessler’s writing and reporting skills, makes Kessler one of the era’s most important golf writers.
Once Nicklaus beat Arnold Palmer to win the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont, the Citizen finally assigned Kessler to start going to the big tournaments to write about Grout’s best student. “I went to the Masters in 1963,” said Kessler, noting the year when Nicklaus won his first of a record six green jackets, “and I haven’t missed one since.”
That’s 55 Masters, if you’re keeping score. Kessler is 93 now, lives south of Denver and still gets around pretty well despite what he calls “bone-on-bone” knees. His newspaper went under in 1985, then he had a nice run as media-relations director for The International tournament at Colorado’s Castle Pines. Kessler is back in Ohio for another Memorial Tournament this week – he has been a fixture here since the event’s 1976 debut. “I say I’m semi-tired, not semi-retired,” he said jokingly as we chatted in the Muirfield Village clubhouse.
If you watched “Jack,” Golf Channel’s terrific three-part series on the Nicklaus era, you caught some of Kessler’s recollections. He is the guardian of all things Nicklaus. “No one has walked more holes following Jack than me, other than Barbara,” said Kessler, noting Nicklaus’ wife.
Kessler typically wrote two stories every day at major championships: one on how the tournament was going and one about how Nicklaus was doing. A lot of times, they turned out to be the same story by the end of the week.
“Back then, we only had eight columns for the sports section, and I kept filling the whole space with stuff about Jack,” Kessler said. “Some of the editors who didn’t know anything about golf would get upset.”
Golf wasn’t what Kessler expected to do with his life. He worked for the Citizen, then served as a staff sergeant in Army intelligence in London during World War II. He rubbed shoulders with baseball catcher Moe Berg, a legendary spy (“He was always furtive. We never knew where the hell he was,” Kessler said) and Lise Meitner, an Austrian-Swedish physicist working in Germany in the late 1930s who helped split the atom but was left out of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in part because of politics. She had been slow to leave Nazi Germany and had to hide from the Nazis in Austria. (“We were supposed to get her out, but she didn’t want to come,” Kessler said. “She did have some jewelry she wanted to get out to some relatives in England, and we did that.”) President Harry Truman later honored her in the U.S. as the 1946 Woman of the Year.
Kessler returned to the newspaper after the war and married Rosemary “Ro” Reeder, the Nebraska girl whom he had met in London. She accepted the proposal – they were married for 48 years when she died in 1995 – on the condition that Kessler finish his college degree at Ohio State while working at the paper.
He got his diploma from OSU. So, later, did Nicklaus, who received an honorary degree in 1972 alongside another notable alumnus, Olympic track hero Jesse Owens.
“Those were two legends,” Kessler said.
I watched him nod in approval and thought, Make it three, Mr. Kessler.