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Golf suited Medford's John Nuich to a tee

The last time I saw John Nuich, I interrupted his dinner long enough to say hello. He smiled broadly, we talked briefly and, as a parting gift, he handed me a tee.

Before that, our paths crossed at the champions dinner of the Southern Oregon Golf Championships at Rogue Valley Country Club. It was difficult for him to get around, a brain tumor incessantly pilfering his abilities. But he'd never missed one of these soirees and wasn't ready to start. He didn't get up and speak, as he had a couple years prior, but it was nice to see him. Another chitchat, another tee.

Last summer, we came together on the 14th tee box at Centennial Golf Club. Nuich's longtime friend, John Kruesi, took him out to the city championships in a golf cart. A young whippersnapper, Mike Barry, was on the road to steamrolling the field and was teeing off. Oh, how Nuich — who had disarmed more than few young guns in his day — appreciated good golf, having played so much of it himself.

"It was his life, that and his family and work," Kruesi said recently. "Golf was kind of John Nuich."

That day Nuich and I talked a bit, and I received a tee.

By now you get that Nuich's calling card, at least once he gave up his jeweler's business card, was a tee. A long, red one with "Nuich's Crab Pot" inscribed on it. You put on a popular pro-am, as the Crab Pot was for 32 years, and you accumulate such things. I suspect there's a box as big as a dumpster in his garage, and it's full of the things.

And fitting that it was a big tee, for the man himself cut a sizable silhouette.

Nuich passed away on Wednesday. I wouldn't pretend to be a fast or longtime buddy. He'd collected many of those since moving to Medford in 1955 to first operate a jewelry store, then open his own five years later. But I tagged along to the Crab Pot a handful of times, and that made us friends.

He wouldn't give a long, red tee to just anyone, would he? Well, probably.

Some might wonder if his golf resume warrants space here. Perhaps it shouldn't. He won the Southern Oregon only once, had success in countless other tournaments, made 10 holes-in-one and was among the founders of the Alan B. Holmes Memorial Scholarship Foundation.

Others grabbed more headlines, few told more stories. Maybe that's reason enough for this column. I get to retell a couple of them one last time.

One recollection Nuich shared was of the time the most accomplished player in the history of the Southern Oregon came to town. E. Harvie Ward won back-to-back U.S. Amateurs in 1955 and '56 and played in 10 Masters, finishing in the top 24 four times. He lived in San Francisco and, in 1965, decided to enter the S.O., one of top amateur tournaments to the north.

He qualified for the U.S. Am that year with a 71 at his home course, San Francisco Golf Club, then submitted that score as his qualifying round for the Southern Oregon. Mike Nuich, John's son, happened to be medalist that year with a 68.

Shockingly, Ward, who was an idol of Jack Nicklaus' when the latter was a teen and who coached Payne Stewart in the 1980s, lost his first match in the Southern Oregon to one Gene Hebrard on the 19th hole.

A day later, he played John Nuich in the first flight and was again defeated, 2 and 1. Afterward, Nuich, Ward and Lynn Creason sat for three hours swapping stories.

"He would be the most high-profile player (in the Southern Oregon) that I know of," Nuich said in a 2004 article. "Any guy who won the U.S. Amateur has to be a hell of a player."

Nuich's lone win in the men's regular division of the S.O. was in 1974, at age 48. It came over Jeff Sanders, one of that era's young guns.

Sanders was 18, played at Oregon and had a cup of coffee on the PGA Tour. He was part of a "Kiddie Corps" of winners in the '70s, beginning with Tom Egge's triumph in 1972, followed by Kelly Owen ('73), Sanders ('75 and '77) and Mark Binegar ('76 and '78).

Nuich managed to interrupt the string once and threatened to do so a number of other times.

"He really was a great golfer," said Kruesi. "Back when I met him, he could compete with anybody. He hit it a long way; he was a big boy. But he did everything."

At the 2008 champions dinner, he told of his magical putter and how he couldn't miss anything during that 1974 run.

"Everything I looked at, it was like it had a wash bucket at the end of it," he said.

One of Nuich's favorite stories came from another year. He was in a tight match against an out-of-town opponent whose name he had since forgotten. They got to the 18th hole, and Nuich was 1-down and fed up with his foe peeking to see what clubs he was hitting.

"He was looking over at my bag all the time," recalled Nuich. "He couldn't ask what I was hitting, and he knew it. But he kept looking, looking, looking."

In the 18th fairway, Nuich told his caddie, "No matter what I ask for, give me the 5-iron."

Then, loud enough for his opponent to hear, Nuich called for his 3-iron, was handed the 5-iron and proceeded to cozy his approach close enough for what would be a birdie.

His opponent, meanwhile, "zinged it way over the green, and if you got on top like that, it was hard to hold coming back."

Nuich won the hole, then went seven playoff holes before claiming victory.

Nuich's family asks that memorial contributions be made to the Holmes scholarship fund, 2600 Hillcrest Road, Medford, 97504. The Crab Pot was the primary money raiser for the fund, which was started in 1992.

A record $15,000 toward tuition aid for six area students was doled out last year.

There will be a service at 2 p.m. Thursday at Perl Funeral Home. It will be followed by a reception at Rogue Valley Country Club.

If you go, be careful not to trip over a long, red tee.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com