Story and photos by Eva Dean Folkert
As he entered the auditorium to begin the ceremony to honor this year's college players of the year, golf legend Jack Nicklaus took his time to introduce himself (as if it was needed!) and warmly chat with each of the five winners beforehand. When he finally reached Hope College's Josh Gibson, Nicklaus looked up at the tall Flying Dutchman and asked, "You were here before, weren't you?"
Gibson nodded; Nicklaus remembered right. The 2019 Hope College graduate had been to Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, before, a year ago as the 2018 NCAA Division III Jack Nicklaus Player of the Year. Gibson's repeat honor in 2019 was recognized immediately by the 79-year-old greatest golfer of all time.
Gibson was one of five golfers to be presented the national award by Nicklaus during the PGA Tour's Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club, founded by Nicklaus in Dublin, Ohio. A Big Ten and NCAA Champion at The Ohio State University, Nicklaus helped inspire and create the Jack Nicklaus Award in 1988. Gibson is the first Division III golfer to claim the award twice and the seventh two-time honoree among all divisions.
"I'm personally very honored to have my name on this award. It represents the best college players in the country from all the divisions (and associations). For us to see them here at Muirfield Village is pretty nice," Nicklaus said of Gibson and other winners Matthew Wolff of Oklahoma State (Division I), Barry University's Jorge Garcia (Division II), Coastal Georgia's Mark David Johnson (NAIA), and Midland College's Callum Bruce (NJCAA).
"There's an old man here who has a willing ear," Nicklaus added, referring to himself, "so if you ever need any help or if there is anything we can do for you, we're delighted to help you. Actually, a few guys have taken me up on that over the years. And that's been good actually."
Gibson didn't waste any time taking Nicklaus up on his offer. At the press conference following the ceremony, the Grandville, Michigan-native divulged that he would be playing in his first professional tournament next week, fittingly at The Bear for the Michigan Open in Traverse City. The course was designed by Nicklaus in 1985.
"So, if you have any pointers…" Gibson quipped. The great one laughed and recommended that Gibson use his brain as much as his physical abilities to manage the track.
Gibson's name is now engraved twice on The Jack Nicklaus Trophy with the likes of Tiger Woods (1996), Phil Mickelson (1990-92), David Duval (1993), Justin Leonard (1994), Stewart Cink (1995), Justin Thomas (2012), and Jon Rahm (2016). That trophy is housed permanently at Muirfield while Gibson received a replica version of his own. And at the ceremony, Gibson was joined by his parents, Joel and Lori, and his Hope golf coach, Scott Lokers.
"I keep track of these things and 20 former winners of this award are in the field today," Nicklaus said of those 20 playing in The Memorial Tournament at Muirfield last weekend. "Like them, you represent the cream of the crop. Maybe you can go on and compete and contribute to the game of golf, too."
As part of being a Nicklaus Award winner, Gibson competed in the Barbasol Shootout at The Ohio State University's Scarlet Course — the collegiate course for Nicklaus when he was a Buckeye — for a chance at an exemption to a PGA Tour event in July in Kentucky. Gibson shot a 3-over-par 74 on Saturday and missed qualifying by two strokes. Callum was the winner with a 72.
Despite the loss, other great memories of the weekend were overpowering for the young man who can undeniably be called Hope's best career golfer. He now plans to play the Dakota Tour after the Michigan Open with the hope of qualifying for the Web.com Tour and the PGA's Q School.
"It was awesome just being here and getting the chance to meet Jack again," Gibson described. "He was never on television playing when I was growing up, but every year when I'm watching the Masters, they (CBS) show the downhill putt he made on 17 — which is an awesome way to see him."
"Well, you know, you've got to make a putt at the right time," Nicklaus fired back, "otherwise they never put you on TV. I got lucky on that one."