When Jacks were better: Nicklaus faced Rule in 1956 tournament at Edgewood
FARGO—For some, the memories are fading like a soft 7-iron at dusk, but for the winner and some fans of the 1956 International Jaycee Junior Golf Tournament in Fargo, the experience hasn't been forgotten.
It was an 18-hole playoff. Jack versus Jack. One, a long-hitting Ohio teenager with golden locks. The other, a budding star from Iowa.
One Jack went on to win three Pine to Palm tournaments in Detroit Lakes, Minn., carve out a decent PGA Tour career and later become a thriving entrepreneur. The other went on to become arguably the biggest name in golf history.
The scene took place 59 years ago at Edgewood Golf Course, tucked inside an oxbow of the Red River in north Fargo. The Jaycees tournament was one of the biggest junior events of its day and the kid from Ohio, 16-year-old Jack Nicklaus, was already making a name for himself as he traveled with his father, Charlie, to Fargo.
"Nicklaus came in with a fair amount of celebrity," said Lyle Hornbacher of Fargo, a college student at the time whose job that summer was to water Edgewood at night. "He was playing great golf since he was 12 years old. If you were golf-oriented, you wanted to watch him play."
Jack Rule, Jr. was the 17-year-old teen from Waterloo, Iowa. He, too, was already showing proof he had game. He finished runner-up in the 1955 tournament to Phil Rogers in Columbus, Ga.
Three weeks before the two Jacks reached Fargo, they had squared off in the semifinals of the U.S. Junior Amateur in Williamstown, Pa. Rule beat Nicklaus 1-up on the final hole in the match-play format.
"Jack could probably reach, but I couldn't," Rule said from Denver. "He hooked a shot and it went up against a fence."
And so, that set the stage for Edgewood.
"They had a little history," Hornbacher said.
The 11th annual Jaycees tournament was a seven-day event consisting of 36 qualifying holes.
Dave Kingsrud, who became the head professional at Edgewood in the mid-1970s, was working as an assistant pro under his father at the Fargo Country Club. Now living in Charlotte, N.C., he recalls a players' dance at the downtown Avalon Ballroom on Broadway, where he was put in charge of introducing the golfers to their dates.
"Nicklaus' date didn't show up," Kingsrud said.
The tournament took place in late August. Hornbacher said the committee hired extra help to manicure the course.
"Edgewood was probably in the best condition it ever was in," he said. "The golf course was just in immaculate shape for a public golf course."
Rule and Nicklaus played a practice round together before the tournament. The teenagers even got a side game going to get the competitive juices flowing.
"One of his teammates and one of mine," Rule said. "We played a little gambling game before the tournament.
"He was much more impressive," Rule added. "He must have outhit me by 30 yards, and I'm giving myself the benefit of the doubt."
Neither Jack was considered the tournament favorite. Rule said John Konsek of Buffalo, N.Y., who went on to become a three-time, first-team All-America selection at Purdue, was the player to beat.
"Had John turned professional," Nicklaus said in a 2004 story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel regarding Konsek's decision to pursue a medical career, "he definitely would be in the Hall of Fame by now."
But it was Rule and Nicklaus fighting for the 1956 title in Fargo. At the end of regulation, Rule finished Edgewood's then-layout at even-par 288. Nicklaus needed a par on the final hole to force a playoff.
"He didn't hit a very good drive," Hornbacher said, remembering watching Nicklaus playing the 18th. "He hooked into the trees. He had to hit a pretty smooth hook shot. He hit a 6-iron to 25 feet and two-putted."
There was an 18-hole playoff the next day, canceling Rule's plans to play in the Eisenhower Invitational Junior Tournament, according to the 1956 Forum story.
Nicklaus took an immediate two-stroke lead, making birdie on the first two holes. Later, down by two strokes on the par-3 sixth (now No. 15), Rule's tee shot soared into the large gallery following the pairing.
"Jack hit his tee shot and there are two traps on the right side," Hornbacher said. "He probably hit it over the first trap and it hit a spectator, which kept it out of hitting the second trap, and chipped it in for a deuce."
After nine holes, Nicklaus had a one-shot lead, benefiting from a 7-foot birdie on No. 8 while Rule miss a similar birdie run on the 9th.
A pair of 320-yard drives helped both make birdies on what was a par-5 10th.
After a par on the 11th, Nicklaus again led by two, but his lead was cut to a single shot when he found the trees on No. 13 and made bogey.
That's when both golfers approached the par-5 14th hole. Today, some might remember the hole as old No. 2, which ran along the entrance into the golf course. Today, the layout is now the par-4 second and the par-3 third holes.
"Rule hit a tee ball and he hooked it," Hornbacher said. "It was going to be in the trees. He hit a spectator on the bounce or roll and it gave him a better angle to the green. So he tried to do that and went for it and the ball didn't hook enough, and low and behold, it hit another spectator alongside the green."
At the time, Kingsrud said there were a lot more trees between Nos. 14 and 15.
"It was a lot tighter," Bob Dahm of Fargo said of the 490-yard hole. "Trees could come into play there."
Rule's ball was 90 feet from the cup in the right rough.
"He was lying two in the trees and he hit a wedge through the trees up on to the green," Kingsrud said.
The ball went in for an eagle.
"I had a swing and an opening," Rule said. "I don't think anyone was more surprised than I was."
"That changed the match, in my mind," Kingsrud said.
Rule had a two-shot lead heading into the final hole. He managed to hit his second shot onto the 18th green and secure the victory.
The final score: Rule 69, Nicklaus 71.
Edgewood head professional Greg McCullough has a photo of Nicklaus, Rule, their fathers and others displayed on his office shelf. He says most golfers don't know Nicklaus played his course.
"There probably was a time they talked about it, but they haven't talked about it for a long time," McCullough said of Edgewood golfers. "They will probably talk about it if they see the picture."
As for Nicklaus, he couldn't recall the details of the 1956 tournament, but remembered the prize.
"I believe I received a $1,000 scholarship from that event, and another $1,000 scholarship the next year," said Nicklaus, who won same Jaycees tournament the following year in Ohio. "That money took me to the second quarter of my senior year at Ohio State, and it paid for my room, board, books and tuition. It basically paid for my fraternity costs."
While not a regular occurrence, touring pros have stopped in Fargo. Lee Trevino and Julius Boros have played here, as well as Tom Lehman of Alexandria, Minn., and Tom and Curt Byrum of Onida, S.D.
Kingsrud recalls that some experts across the country were critical of Nicklaus' swing back then—making comments that they weren't sure a successful professional career was in the cards.
"They said he had a flying right elbow. They weren't sure he'd make it at the time," Kingsrud said.
Hornbacher said Nicklaus' course management was exceptional.
"Jack was a fat kid with crew cut," Hornbacher said. "For a 16-year-old, he had a much more mature approach to the game of golf."
"They said this guy is going to be a winner, though he might not be the greatest ever—it was too early to tell—but they were saying he was going to be good," Kingsrud said.
Nicklaus went on to win 73 tour events and 18 major championships in his professional career. Rule won twice on tour, including the 1963 St. Paul Open.
"All I can say is that he [Nicklaus] was in a group that teed off much later," Rule said.
He said Nicklaus found balance between length and accuracy.
"That is impressive. But back in that era, people thought if you hit the ball a long way, you had to be wild," Rule said, "but what has come to pass was you can hit the ball a long way and be straight. He was a great example of that. That's why his record in the majors is what it is."
Now, at 76, Rule is CEO of incentaHEALTH in Denver, a company founded in 2002 that provides incentives to employees to reduce their health care costs. Rule previously backed the long-shafted Killer Bee driver that featured golfer Rocky Thompson in its 1990s TV infomercials.
"Strangely, whenever I'm done playing golf, what seems to be with me today is that I'm the guy who beat Jack Nicklaus, which of course was way before his peak," Rule said. "That's what I hear the most often.
"Fargo is a place I remember very warmly."