The Bear With the Golden Touch

Jack Nicklaus is long past his playing prime, but golf’s greatest champion hasn’t slowed down

By Rob Duca • Photography By Jim Mandeville

It was the end of an exhausting day that was approaching midnight, and many of the people at the dinner were getting bleary-eyed. Jack Nicklaus, who turned 75 in January, wasn’t one of them.

Nicklaus had been going non-stop for 11 hours, beginning with a morning flight on his Gulfstream jet from his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He had attended a luncheon and submitted to a two-hour “fireside chat” at Willowbend, a private club in Mashpee, Mass., then flown to Creighton Farms in Virginia for a cocktail reception, a dinner and another “fireside chat.” Early the next morning he was on the practice range warming up for a charity golf tournament.

Along the way he rubbed elbows with donors and fans, submitted to television and newspaper interviews and provided golf tips to his amateur partners. And he rarely stopped smiling. When his handlers attempted to cut off questions and escort their boss away, he waved them off.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, ‘Folks, we have time for one more question,’ and he’ll say, ‘No, we have as much time as they want,’” says Scott Tolley, vice president of corporate communications for Nicklaus Companies. “We have to build in a little slack time because he’s so accommodating. He does not like you to cut him off.”

This is the Nicklaus that has become a global brand in his post-playing career, designing golf courses around the world and selling everything from golf equipment and clothing apparel to wine, sunglasses, shoes and pens inscribed with the “Golden Bear” logo. His net worth has been pegged at $250 million. He has a yacht for relaxing, a Gulfstream for business travel and homes scattered around the country. Nothing about this American icon resembles retirement. Last year he traveled to 28 countries, including Japan and China. He explains the punishing schedule with a shrug of his shoulders, saying, “I don’t like to be bored.”

His employees call him the Energizer bunny. None of this surprises the former Barbara Bash, who met her determined husband when both were teenagers. “I don’t think either one of us knew what we were in for,” she says. “But he always went at everything 110 percent. I just knew he would be successful in whatever he chose.”

Golf’s first couple, married now for 54 years, came to Cape Cod last September to be feted as the 2014 Willowbend Honorees for their contributions to golf and their commitment to philanthropy. Nicklaus was presented with a plaque and a $100,00 check from club owners David Southworth and Joe Deitch to benefit the Nicklaus Children’s Benefit Foundation, which has raised $30 million since its inception 10 years ago. Another $700,000 was added to the coffers at the annual Creighton Farms Invitational the following day, a celebrity event that also featured the likes of Roger Clemens and Joe Theismann.

I was fortunate to spend two days with Nicklaus, which included a police escort from Willowbend to Barnstable Municipal Airport and a ride to Virginia aboard his private plane. We talked on the plane about anything and everything, even recurring crazy golf dreams. I watched him during a private VIP reception at a home that was built for him at Creighton Farms, where he held court, charming his admirers with easy conversation. I followed him for 18 holes of golf, where not once did he display a hint of annoyance, even when one of his amateur partners repeatedly took the lead on reading putts on a golf course Nicklaus designed.

In the spotlight, he appears completely comfortable in his own skin. Behind the scenes, he loves talking college football, especially Florida State, where his grandson, Nick O’Leary, was the starting tight end last fall. Theismann learned this when he bumped into Nicklaus at the practice range. “All I wanted to do is talk golf with him, because hey, he’s Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer who ever lived, but all he wanted was to talk about football,” Theismann said.

He also hates texting and leaves his cell phone shut off most of the time. “He says he has enough people on the payroll with cell phones that if someone needs to reach him, they will find him,” Barbara says.

Nicklaus has been in the public eye for more than half a century, but what do we really know about him besides the obvious? In the public’s mind, Arnold Palmer was the charismatic, swashbuckling star who couldn’t sign enough autographs, while Nicklaus was portrayed as cool, aloof and detached, his head down and his mind focused solely on the task at hand. Maybe that was true during his playing career. Not anymore.

“People talk about the steely blue [eyes] and the intimidation factor, but in real life he’s warm, personable and giving of his time,” Tolley says. “He’s just a normal guy. I think the comparison to Palmer is unfair. Palmer is everything you’ve heard, but Jack is more than what the public sees.”

That laid-back persona was evident on the flight to Creighton Farms as Nicklaus offered soda and chips to his passengers and spent the trip answering questions. When it was mentioned that the winner of the long-drive contest at last year’s PGA Championship was one yard short of his record 341-yard blast in 1963, he pulled a gold money clip from his pocket. “This is the clip I won for that drive,” he said. “I’ve been carrying it ever since.” After the flight landed he offered a handshake and the famously charming Nicklaus wink.

Nicklaus has a stock answer whenever he is asked to state his greatest accomplishment. “Five kids, 22 grandkids, 54 years of marriage to Barbara, that to me is it,” he says.

He gives credit to Barbara for 15 of his 18 major championships and quickly adds, “It should probably be all 18. If she had not supported my life and the commitments I had, I do not think I would have been successful. She never put herself first. She took care of all the things so as not to clutter my life.”

Tolley, who has worked for Nicklaus for 17 years, insists it’s not just a PR line. “Everything that is said about his commitment to family is true,” he says. “It’s not just a public persona. He treats his employees as family. When I had my first child, the first flowers to arrive were from Jack and Barbara.”

His home life these days revolves around trips to middle school and high school soccer and volleyball games to watch his grandchildren. He is a regular presence at Florida State football games, attending all 14 last season.

He is long past his prime. His flowing blond hair has thinned and the once imposing physique that launched mammoth tee shots has been overtaken by old age. He embarked on a diet last year and lost 27 pounds. Barbara jokes that “it’s only the 287th diet he’s tried.”

His 18 majors remain the gold standard, and Tiger Woods is no longer considered a lock to eclipse it, although Nicklaus believes there will be more majors in Tiger’s future.

“He’s too talented not to come back, and I think he’s too focused on my record,” he says. “It’s been on his wall since he was a little kid and I don’t think he’ll quit until he gets there. I still think he’ll pass my record … but maybe not.”

One gets the sense that it doesn’t matter to Nicklaus. He’s content with his accomplishments, and if his record falls, so be it. Yet he’s also proud and he hasn’t forgotten. He can recite in detail rounds he shot 50 years ago. Barbara shakes her head as he goes through the club selections, yardages, pin placements and wind direction. She remembers the first time she attended a tournament to watch him play. The experience was forgettable to a non-golfer, so when Jack asked her on the ride home what she thought of the shot he hit on 13, she was dumbfounded. “That’s when I thought this isn’t going to work out,” she says, laughing at the memory.

In his heyday Nicklaus often said he would never become a “ceremonial golfer,” and he has kept his word. He plays in events like the one at Creighton Farms because it benefits his foundation, which is a cause near and dear to his heart. His daughter, Nan, nearly died when she was a baby and Jack and Barbara vowed that if they were ever in a position to do so, they would set up a foundation dedicated to easing the demands on families with sick children. The tragic death of their 17-month-old grandson, Jake, in a drowning accident in 2005 cemented their resolve.

Playing golf is not high on his list of priorities. “I play about 10 times a year,” he says. “I don’t miss it at all. Golf was my vehicle for competition. When I couldn’t compete at it anymore, I stopped playing. I don’t miss golf, I miss competition.”

He doesn’t dream about what once was, either. “I have a crazy golf dream where I can’t get to the first tee no matter what I do,” he says. “But that’s it.”

He’ll still grind when he’s on the course, though. Asked how he’s hitting it during the Creighton Farms Invitational, he gives a look of disgust, pointing in different directions to indicate his shots are going all over the place. Reminded that he rarely plays, he scoffs, “But I shouldn’t forget how!”

But as he stands over a shot and tilts his head slightly back before takeaway, you can almost picture the old Nicklaus. He is steady and intense, and although he can’t take the club back as far as he once did, his drives are accurate and respectfully long. There is even a “Yes, sir!” moment when he drops a long eagle putt on the third hole. Later, when he faces an eight-foot putt for birdie on the final green after his partners have all missed, one of the amateurs has the audacity to implore, “Come on Jack, the pressure is on!”

Did anyone ever make more eight-footers that mattered in the history of the game? This one definitely doesn’t matter. But he drains it just the same (Did you expect anything else?) and his team shoots 59 to finish second.

At the awards luncheon he is presented with a glass wine decanter, “You mean I get to keep this?” he jokes. “I don’t think I’ve ever won anything before in one of these events.”

From the audience someone shouts, “You can put it with your green jackets!”

One hour later he is heading back to Florida, the Gulfstream speeding toward its destination. Like its owner, slowing down is not on the agenda.

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