Recalling the most remarkable comeback story in KHSAA history

September 14, 2017 FieldsColumn

Bobby Nichols, left, and Ben Hogan shown together on the PGA Tour. When Nichols was critically injured in a car wreck in high school, he got an inspirational letter from Hogan, who had been through a similar ordeal.

BY MIKE FIELDS

Justin Thomas, a St. Xavier graduate and former KHSAA state titlist, has written quite a story on the PGA Tour this season. He’s won five tournaments, including the PGA Championship, earned nearly $9 million, and has a shot at the $10 million Fed Ex Cup this weekend.

But his story isn’t the best ever written over the course of a season by a St. Xavier grad/ KHSAA state titlist/PGA champ.

Bobby Nichols takes that honor. He authored perhaps the most remarkable comeback in the history of Kentucky high school sports.

That comeback began 65 years ago this month.

In September, 1952, Nichols, then a junior at St. X, was critically injured in a car accident. He suffered a brain concussion, broken pelvis, collapsed lung, punctured spine, bruised kidney and other internal injuries. The 16-year-old was given last rites. He was unconscious for more than two weeks, and spent 3 ½ months in the hospital.

Bobby Nichols in 1953

Nichols’ story had an amazing ending, however. The next spring, that same school year, he won the state high school golf championship by rallying from 7 shots down over the last 9 holes at Fort Knox, and also led St. X to the team title.

Nichols, now 81 and living in Florida, recently recalled his near miraculous recovery.

“When I got out of the hospital, I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” he said. “I know I was lucky to just be able to walk. When you’re young like that, you heal a lot better and a lot quicker. But I know I was pretty darn lucky.”

Nichols didn’t play golf again until the next spring when his comeback got a big boost from Ben Hogan.

Hogan knew the challenges Nichols faced. One of the greatest golfers ever, Hogan was seriously injured in an automobile accident in February, 1949, when he and his wife were in a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus. Hogan was hospitalized for two months, and didn’t play golf again for nine months.

But he went on to win six majors after his accident.

During Nichols’ convalescence, Brother Jerome, one of his teachers at St. X, contacted Hogan and asked if he could get in touch with Nichols and encourage him.

In March, 1953, Nichols received a letter from Hogan. Here’s part of what Hogan wrote:

  • “I don’t have to tell you that the human body probably is the greatest machine ever known – plus the fact that given a chance will heal any sickness or hurt.
  • “It is the determination and will of a person to do the exercises that will get him well and as you certainly know there are no shortcuts.
  • “I don’t want to sound like a preacher and hope you understand my thoughts for you. I am terribly sorry for your misfortune and you shall be remembered in my prayers.”

A few months later, Nichols won the state title and led St. X to the team championship.

“Mr. Hogan’s letter was a big surprise,” Nichols recalled. “It was really exciting to get it, and really inspiring. I still have it, of course. It’s framed and on my wall here at home.”

Bobby Nichols won the 1964 PGA Championship.

Nichols, who repeated as state high school champ in 1954, went on to play college golf at Texas A&M (where Bear Bryant gave him a football scholarship to play golf).

He joined the PGA Tour in 1960, and after winning twice in 1962, he received the Ben Hogan Award from the Golf Writers Association of America for his “courageous comeback.”

Nichols wound up winning 12 times on the PGA Tour, highlighted by the PGA Championship in 1964. On his way to that major title, he was paired with Hogan in the final round at Columbus (Ohio) Country Club.

Professional golf is a lot more lucrative now than it was in the 1960s.

Justin Thomas won the 2017 PGA Championship.

When Nichols won the 1964 PGA Championship, his first-place check was for $18,000.

When Thomas won this year’s PGA Championship, his first-place check was for $1.89 million.

Nichols watched on TV as his fellow St. X alum captured that major at Quail Hollow last month.

“It was pretty exciting, pretty amazing,” Nichols said. “Justin looks like a really solid player, and he looks like he’s going to be around for a long time.”

Bobby Nichols’ remarkable comeback story from his teenage years at St. X will endure forever.