How Bad Was Jack Nicklaus' Bunker Play?

Hitting out of bunkers was a weakness for Jack Nicklaus
I was looking at this list of yearly sand save leaders on the PGA Tour earlier, and a thought occurred to me: Just how bad was Jack Nicklaus out of the sand?

Nicklaus' contemporaries often talk about his greenside bunker play as the Bear's one glaring weakness. For example, here's Lee Trevino talking about his playoff against Nicklaus in the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion:

"I bogeyed the first hole of the playoff to give Jack a one-shot lead but got it back when he left a ball in the bunker on the second hole and made bogey. He left another ball in the bunker at the third to make double, and I took the lead for good. He chunked a wedge from the fairway at the 10th. It's funny how God doesn't give everybody everything, and from Jack, He held back the wedge. Jack was not a good bunker player. He could play wedges from the fairway OK, but around greens he didn't have much finesse. Years later, I asked Jack why he wasn't a good wedge player, and he said, "I didn't need to be. I hit the ball in the fairway and then hit it on the green." If you ever saw Jack play, you could see how that made sense. Still, when you add it up, two things won me that playoff: Jack's sand wedge, and the rain."

You can find lots of quotes like that about Nicklaus' bunker play from his contemporaries. No question that poor bunker play cost Nicklaus strokes, and probably a few wins over the years.

But just how bad was Nicklaus out of the sand? If we could see his sand save stats, we might have an answer for that. And it turns out we can see Nicklaus' sand save stats, although only from late in his career. The PGA Tour didn't start keeping that statistic officially until 1980. Nicklaus was 40 years old by then.

Then again, he did win two majors in 1980. He also won in 1982, in 1984, and his final win was at the 1986 Masters. So Nicklaus won five times from 1980 through 1986 — a pretty good rate (a great rate for a mere mortal).

What were his sand save percentages and rankings in those years? Here you go:

  • 1980 — 31.37 percent, ranked 168th on tour
  • 1981 — 45.78 percent, 75th
  • 1982 — 47.83 percent, 79th
  • 1983 — 43.48 percent, 128th
  • 1984 — 42.42 percent, 159th
  • 1985 — 38.83 percent, 148th
(Nicklaus didn't play enough rounds in 1986 to qualify for the tour stats list.)

So Nicklaus' highest ranking was only 75th, and his best sand save percentage was only 47.83. In 2019, 47.83 would have ranked 132nd. In 2019, not a single golfer (who qualified for the rankings) was worse than Nicklaus' 31.37 in 1980. Cameron Champ was in dead last, 188th place, at 37.04-percent — six percentage points higher. Now we can say, quantifiably, that Jack Nicklaus really did stink out of greenside bunkers.

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