Jack at 80: Nicklaus on life, majors and refusing to slow down

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NORTH PALM BEACH, Fla. — There is not much vanity on display in the Nicklaus home, the one that overlooks a pool and Lake Worth Lagoon, a waterway to the Atlantic Ocean and where the most accomplished golfer in the game’s history has resided since 1970.

Jack Nicklaus moved here just after he won The Open that year over Doug Sanders in a playoff at St. Andrews, where he flung his putter in the air and nearly conked himself in the head, a moment of joy that has lived on in highlight video for decades.

Fifty years later, he is still celebrating such victories, although now it is more about the five kids and 22 grandchildren and the charitable initiatives that he and his wife of nearly 60 years, Barbara, immersed themselves in long ago.

Barbara is in the kitchen, talking to their only daughter, Nan (and mom of Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Nick O’Leary), and a colleague involved with the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation. Jack is sitting nearby, taking it all in. This is where the five kids spent most of their youth and where the grandkids — who call the winner of 18 major championships “Peepaw” — often congregate.

Jack is home today because he has made time to talk about his impending 80th birthday. Yes, the Golden Bear became an octogenarian on Tuesday, and he is taking such an occasion in stride — and recognizing that it has become just that much easier to break his age on the golf course.

Typically, Nicklaus is self-deprecating these days when it comes to his golf game. He jokes about listening for the ball to hit the fairway — it’s so close, he can hear it — rather than watching it soar into the sky. He has no problem with playing from the forward tees with his buddies down the road at The Bear’s Club, the place he founded in 1999.

And when he heads to Augusta National, where each of the past two years he has played in the club’s annual spring jamboree with fellow member Peyton Manning, Nicklaus doesn’t even consider the championship tees from where he produced so much glory in winning the Masters six times.

“I play from the same place as Condoleezza Rice,” said Nicklaus, referencing the former U.S. secretary of state who became one of the first women to join the club. Nicklaus is not bothered by this in the least, even if he admits it does bug him to no longer play golf like, well, Jack Nicklaus.

“Sure it does,” Nicklaus said. “I want to play like Jack Nicklaus every time I tee it up. That’s probably why I don’t play much.”

Nicklaus often quips that when people approach him and say they wish they could play golf like Jack Nicklaus, “now I tell them they can.”

Yet it is hard to imagine anyone as comfortable in their own skin as Nicklaus, the winner of 18 major titles and 73 PGA Tour events who long ago settled into a multifaceted role as family patriarch, elder statesmen, golf course designer, businessman, tournament host and philanthropist.

And who still goes to the office every day, turning left out of his Lost Tree Village neighborhood and onto … Jack Nicklaus Boulevard.

“I’ve still got a lot of things I want to do,” he said. “I certainly don’t have any reason to want to curl up in a corner someplace with a green banana and hope it gets ripe.”

It has been 15 years since Nicklaus ended his true competitive career by playing his last tournament at The Open, with his final round at St. Andrews — where, of course, he drained a 13-foot birdie putt on the 18th green at the Home of Golf, the same week a £5 note was printed in his honor.

And this year will be 34 years since his most epic of victories, his win at age 46 at the 1986 Masters, where a final-round 65 — including a second-nine 30 — beat back an All-Star cast that included Greg Norman, Tom Kite, Seve Ballesteros, Tom Watson and others, for the last of his official titles.

Despite all that time away from the award ceremonies, Nicklaus remains relevant, staying involved in the game with his course design work, hosting the Memorial Tournament, having a big role — along with Barbara — in the nearby Honda Classic, which benefits their Nicklaus foundation. And by staying closely attuned to what is going on in the game.

Last year, Nicklaus played a round with President Donald Trump, Tiger Woods and son Gary in nearby Jupiter on a day when Woods shot 64. “And it was the easiest 64 you ever saw,” Nicklaus said, foretelling what was to come. Two months later, Nicklaus was in the Bahamas on his yacht, Sea Bear, and came in early to catch the second nine of the Masters, arriving just in time to see player after player hit their tee shot into Rae’s Creek at the par-3 12th.

“I can tell you, I didn’t leave my chair,” Nicklaus said. “Tiger hit the ball, and of course he had a little cut shot over the left side of the bunker into the middle of the green. And the tournament is over.”

Not exactly. But to Nicklaus, it was done. That was the defining moment for Woods, and Jack was correct, never one to offer a tepid take. Perhaps that is why so many of today’s young players flock to him, whether it’s to pick his brain or simply be in the presence of a legend.

Nicklaus big-times no one, and dearly enjoys the encounters. Last year, Nicklaus ran into Patrick Cantlay at Muirfield Village, site of Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. Cantlay is a member at the Bear’s Club and Jack felt some local knowledge was in order. So he sat Cantlay down and gave him the pep talk only he could heading into the weekend.

Two days later, Cantlay was holding the trophy, and Nicklaus was sitting next to him answering questions in the interview room.

“I don’t go out and seek this but I’m available,” Nicklaus said. “I’ve always felt like I might have some knowledge, you might call it wisdom, I don’t know whether it is or not. I might have something to impart to the kids that might help them and I’m delighted to supply that to any one of them. It’s very flattering to me that a 22-, 23-year-old would want to hear from an 80-year-old. You never listened to your dad, why would you listen to your great-grandfather?

“It’s very nice and I enjoy it. We have about 30 of the young pros who are members at the Bear’s Club, so I see them all the time and I’m available and I’m always around there anyway. It’s kind of nice when you’re 80 that they still want to come talk to me.”

Among the current group of highly ranked players, Rory McIlroy was the first to seek out Nicklaus well before he won the first of his four major championships in 2011.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” McIlroy said. “It was great to talk to him and see his approach to winning and what went through his head whenever he was in contention and what he might have done differently than other people. It was probably the best 90 minutes I’ve spent in a long time.”

Nicklaus grew up in Columbus, Ohio, but started spending his winters in Florida in the mid-1960s. Jack and Barbara decided it made sense to relocate permanently so the kids could get acclimated to school and friends — and so Jack would have a home base for practice and business.

They settled in this gated community a few yards from the Atlantic Ocean and never left. It was just before Christmas, not long after Nicklaus won his eighth major title — and just as he was about to embark on a decade of dominance. Nicklaus finished top 10 in 35 of the 40 majors in the 1970s, winning eight.

A good bit of that history is accounted for in a small office set away from the main living area of his home, one adorned with a lifetime of photos, mementos, plaques, trophies … you name it.

Of course, there are a few that stand out, such as the replicas of the four major championship prizes, Masters and U.S. Open trophies, the Claret Jug for The Open and the Wannamaker for the PGA Championship.

When Nicklaus won his six Masters (1963, ’65, ’66, ’72, ’75, ’86), Augusta National gave a plaque to the winner, later changed to a trophy in the likes of the old manor clubhouse. Nicklaus eventually bought four of them — as he did with the other major championship trophies — and has one each at home, at The Bear’s Club, at Muirfield Village and at the Jack Nicklaus Museum on the campus of Ohio State University. (To think that one person has a stand-alone building that serves as his own museum is rather remarkable.)

Enclosed in a glass case are three classic originals — the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded in 2005; the Congressional Gold Medal, awarded in 2015; and the Lincoln Medal, which he received in 2018. (Nicklaus is one of just four people — and the only sportsman — to be awarded all three. The other three are Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan and Elie Wiesel).

When he is in town, Nicklaus heads to the office of his Nicklaus Companies every day. He exits the neighborhood onto the street named for him, heads a mile or so west to U.S. 1, turns left and is at his desk in less than five minutes.

Two years ago, Nicklaus announced he was stepping away from the day-to-day duties of his company, and that long-time partner Howard Milstein would take on a bigger role. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.

“I’m still doing pretty much what I was doing then,” Nicklaus said. “I support the company with whatever they do. I’m still involved anytime they have a meeting and would like to have me involved. I was basically running the company to a large degree up until that time. It was time for me to semi get away from it.”

Nicklaus’ oldest son, Jack II (remember Jackie being on the bag for his dad’s ’86 Masters win and their emotional embrace on the 18th green? He’s now 58.), is president of Nicklaus Design and the Golden Bear himself is still heavily involved in that work.

He has designed more than 300 golf courses, including his jewel, the Muirfield Village Golf Club, which has been home to the Memorial Tournament — as well as a Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup and Presidents Cup — since 1976. It is one of 15 courses that are currently being used on the PGA Tour.

How much did Nicklaus’ 1966 Open victory at Muirfield in Scotland mean to him? He named his own course after it and designed the logo to his Memorial Tournament to include the Claret Jug.

“At 80, he’s still looking for the next mountain to climb,” said Scott Tolley, manager and executive vice president for Nicklaus and the Nicklaus family. “He still enjoys golf design immensely. It’s amazing when you see him on a site, how energized it makes him. His ideas are the ideas of a 25-year-old. He’s creative. He’s a master problem solver.

“He does not do boredom very well. He likes to go, go go. I still think at 80, he can go on a project and outwork anybody. We travel, and he wears me out. He likes to shove as much as he can into a short timeframe and he has more energy than most people do.”

Nicklaus chuckles at the idea that he once thought he would retire at age 35.

“The kids all said, “Dad, what are you doing? You can still beat everybody out there. You need to keep playing. You love it.’ I said, “Well, I do. [But] I want to be part of your life and grow up with you and watch what you do and do things. I’m not too concerned about myself.’

“They talked me into going back and playing,” Nicklaus said. “From age 35, I won four more majors and won a few more tournaments and had a great time.”

Nicklaus also won eight senior major championships. And at age 58, he tied for sixth in the Masters — beating Woods, who was the defending champion in 1998. After that year’s U.S. Open, Nicklaus’ amazing streak of 144 consecutive majors played — which dated to the 1962 Masters — came to an end because of hip replacement surgery.

And in a quirk of history, at each of the majors Nicklaus said goodbye to — the 2000 U.S. Open and PGA Championship, the 2005 Masters and Open — Woods was the winner.

Woods was among a flood of people who sent their best wishes via video tribute at a recent 80th birthday party. Pinning down Nicklaus to celebrate proved to be a tough task, but all of the kids insisted on a large get-together at the house on Jan. 11 to celebrate both their dad’s big day as well as for Barbara, who turns 80 on Feb. 28. (They will celebrate their 60th anniversary on July 23.)

A few months ago, Tolley set out on a plan to get a handful of video messages for the occasion from some key people in golf, sports, entertainment and politics. After starting, the goal turned into getting 80 such tributes. “The positive response was incredible,” Tolley said. “And it was all born out of the incredible respect, admiration and affection for an amazing couple.”

In the end, Tolley got 110 messages representing more than 170 people.

The list is impressive and includes Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Roger Clemens, Joe Torre, Jim Nantz, Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vince Gill, Marie Osmond and Toby Keith.

Among golfers, the videos included Woods, Greg Norman, Lee Trevino, Annika Sorenstam, Ernie Els, McIlroy and Justin Thomas.

And any of them who want to play golf with Jack should know he’s not taking it too seriously these days.

“I don’t think since that round at St. Andrews in 2005 that I have played an official 18-hole round where I’ve holed every putt out,” he said. “I know I haven’t. From that point on, I played golf for a while where if I hit a bad shot, I just threw down another ball. If I missed a putt, the second one was good. I think those are pretty good rules, they’re kind of fun to play by.”

Nicklaus then lamented his last round, played on Dec. 30 at the Bear’s Club. He shot 78.

“I had 12 pars and 6 bogeys,” he said. “No birdies. I think I make a birdie a month.”

Nicklaus laughed. It doesn’t mean Jack will stop trying, not at golf … or just about anything else he still wants to accomplish.

“There’s a lot out there I’d like to get to, so I’m not ready to give up on it yet,” he said. “It’s kind of fun to be involved. The foundation’s been a blast, too — 80 is just a number. I got the same questions when I was 70 and I’m still doing things. Hopefully, when I get to be 90 we’ll have the same questions then.”

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