As Jack Nicklaus turns 76, his legacy grows off the golf course
Jack Nicklaus is 76. A big number, but thirty years after winning his final and most glorious major championship, it’s actually a sweet spot.
Though he left the big stage a decade ago with a final birdie at St. Andrews, the Golden Bear’s legacy keeps expanding. With Tiger Woods’ assault on 18 majors stalled and aura of inevitability over, Mt. Nicklaus has become both more majestic to behold and that much steeper to future climbers.
Brandel Chamblee recently made a well-researched argument that Woods’ margins of victory in majors -- the core of his unsurpassed dominance -- make him the GOAT. It’s a close call, with many possible nuances, and I would agree that Woods achieved the highest level of golf ever played. But if majors are indeed the best way to measure history’s best against each other, then Nicklaus having four more than Woods matters more than how many strokes championships were won by. And if a tiebreaker is needed, then, even allowing for the greater depth in the modern era, it’s Nicklaus’ 19 seconds, nine thirds and 56 total top 5s in majors, against Woods’ six, four and 31.
The magic, multi-tiered word at the heart of Nicklaus’ feats has always been “management” -- of the golf course, of his psyche, of his life. Through his prime and beyond, he was criticized for not playing enough tournaments. His devotion to family was the main reason, but he also trusted an intuitive sense for marshaling his energy. No one else has won major championships over a 24-year span.
The overall pacing and relative lack of obsession has caused Nicklaus to wonder whether he underachieved. No doubt he could have pushed harder in his early years, when his physical advantage over his peers was at its widest. He definitely could have honed a better short game. He shouldn’t have let unabated bad habits cost him a lost season in 1979. And after he came back with two major victories the next year, he shouldn’t have let turning 40 flip his mind-set to semi-retirement.
"If I were to look back on my work,” he told Golf Digest in 2010, “I think I accomplished probably about 70 to 75 percent of what I could have. Maybe 60 percent. Somewhere in that area; two-thirds of what I could have accomplished.”
But last year his self-assessment had grown more measured. “Every player’s got to find his balance between ambition and sanity,” he said. “Now, were major championships my focus? Yes. Where they my sole focus in life? No – my family was always before that. Could I have worked harder and won more majors? Probably. Could I have driven myself crazy doing it? Absolutely.”
Nicklaus never did. And the ultimate validator is that he has been as good at life after golf as he was at golf.
Andy O’Brien, the son of the late and warmly remembered Larry O’Brien, who served as Nicklaus’ public relations man for 26 years, has himself worked for Jack nearly as long. The person he sees now -- who outsiders might naturally suspect as an another aimless alpha in winter -- is more fulfilled and content than ever.
Nicklaus has long taken joy from having all five of his children, and nearly all 22 grandchildren, live near the same North Palm Beach home that he and his wife of 55 years, Barbara, have occupied since 1970. But in recent years, O’Brien also sees Nicklaus re-energized by willingly accepting a role reversal in his marriage.
In essence, this is Barbara’s time. Long appreciated as the foundation of her husband’s success -- Deane Beman called her “the 15th club” -- she is now dedicated to helping direct and fundraise for both the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation and the Miami Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. Firmly ensconced in the background for years, last year’s Bob Jones Award winner is now out front, writing her own speeches and delivering them inspirationally. Invariably her husband watches from the front row, happy to be the world’s most renown plus-one this side of Bill Clinton.
“Jack says, ‘I was her priority all those decades I played. Now she’s my priority. Fair is fair,’ ” says O’Brien. “He’s always going to have drive and be goal-oriented. But now it’s like he’s channeled all of that toward Barbara’s projects.”
Other than the annual Father & Son in Orlando, Nicklaus only plays golf in rounds bought at charity auctions by donors to the hospital. “He comes back and says, ‘Yeah, I shot a brilliant 82,” says O’Brien. “He stopped measuring himself through golf a long time ago.”
Nicklaus’ closest connection to the game comes in the gratifying opportunity to dispense wisdom to young players –including Rory McIlroy -- who come to visit him at his office. The latest of his more than 300 golf designs are taking him on his Gulfstream IV to far-flung locales like Turkmenistan in central Asia, where Nicklaus recently broke his previous “no stan” rule.
Increasingly, his business focus is toward branding lifestyle products, including such sweet-tooth personal pleasures as iced tea, lemonade and ice cream. O’Brien says the son of a Columbus pharmacist enjoys being around grocery store retailers.
Besides watching his grandchildren play sports, Nicklaus’ great diversions are playing doubles tennis on his grass courts with friends including tennis Hall of Famer Cliff Drysdale, and ocean fly-fishing for bonefish with Barbara and occasional guests including good pal Johnny Miller.
“He loves it because it’s an art that takes strategy and skill,” says O’Brien. “A lot of things about the conditions have to be worked out before the cast, which also has to be precise. It’s a lot like how he played golf.”
It all adds up to an enviable sweet spot. “It wasn’t easy to reach this point,” says O’Brien. “You learn that the fame and the money and the records makes it harder. But like everything else, Jack figured it out.” Or as Lee Trevino, who himself turned 76 last month, recently said of Nicklaus, “He’s been so good at ALL of it.”
Happy birthday, Jack.