The greatest golfer of all time just happens to live in Florida
Jack Nicklaus is surrounded by a lifetime of memories as he settles into a large leather chair behind a large wooden desk in his home office.
To his right sit three distinguished medals — Presidential Medal of Freedom, Congressional Gold Medal, Lincoln Medal — of which he is one of four people in the world to be awarded all three.
Bookshelves are lined with about three dozen trophies, cups and plaques signifying some of his greatest feats on the golf course.
A Florida State helmet signed by Jimbo Fisher and a commemorative Ohio State football given to him by Urban Meyer are displayed.
Dozens of photos with family, dignitaries and some of the world’s most distinguished athletes dot the walls and shelves. A set of vintage wooden golf clubs rest in a corner.
Nicklaus is revered and recognized around the world. He has been to the top of the mountain in his prime as an athlete and continues to reach greater heights in the business world. He is helping change lives with the family foundation. He has golfed with four presidents - Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump.
So what does this man still hope to accomplish as he gets closer to another milestone birthday?
“I’d love to get up in the morning and be able to buy green bananas,” he joked. “But I think that time has passed.”
The Golden Bear is turning 80 Tuesday. But he’s just getting started in his Golden Years.
Jack and Barbara will be married 60 years come July
Jack Nicklaus already has celebrated thanks to his family, which recently brought together an intimate gathering of 200 of Jack and Barbara Nicklaus’ closest friends and family to honor Palm Beach County’s newest octogenarians. Barbara turns 80 next month.
But for a man who spent his entire life trying to avoid the number 80 on the golf course, now he will embrace it.
Nicklaus is not going anywhere. Retirement? This was his answer when asked when he was going to retire.
You’d have a better chance of Jack three-putting than of him retiring.
“I don’t think I really am going to retire,” he said. “I have no desire to retire. I still got a lot of things I want to do.
“Eighty, hopefully, is just a number.”
This is a year of milestones for Jack and Barbara Nicklaus. Aside from both turning 80, the couple, who have five children and 22 grandchildren, will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in July and 50 years of living in their same home at Lost Tree in North Palm Beach on Christmas. They moved to Palm Beach County in 1966.
But for Nicklaus, the days will remain the same. He still will get in 20-minute early-morning and late-night workouts at his home gym. “I don’t ever miss,” he said. He was in that gym at 1 a.m. after his party. He’s dealing with a sore shoulder and bad back but says that is just part of getting old.
'Trump plays pretty well, not bad at all’
He will play a few rounds a year, some of which in recent years have been with President Trump at the president’s course in Jupiter. Nicklaus says the president “approaches” golf much like he does, which is focusing more on the “enjoyment of the game” than his score.
“President Trump plays pretty well, not bad at all,” Nicklaus said. “He plays fast and enjoys the game for what it is. I think the president finds his engagement with the people he’s playing golf with more important than the score he shoots.”
He will stay connected with the game through tournaments such as the Memorial, which he hosts at his course at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, and the Honda Classic, which is played at PGA National, about seven miles from his home.
He will remain available for tour players like Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Patrick Cantlay, all of whom have sought out his advice, or any of the other 30 or so pros who are members at the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, which Jack and Barbara founded in 1999.
“It’s very flattering to me that a 22-, 23-year old would want to hear from an 80-year old,” he said. “You never listened to your dad, why would you listen to your great grandfather?”
He will continue to design golf courses around the world. The Nicklaus Companies have designed more than 300 courses, 15 currently being used on the PGA Tour. He says he has about 10 courses he’s currently working on.
“I still love doing golf courses,” he said.
And especially, he will be available to assist Barbara with their charities and the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, which they started in 2005 and has raised more than $100 million.
“He’s really gotten involved and he is phenomenal,” Barbara said. “He is loving it. We tease him, we say, ‘We’re going to have to raise your salary again.’ He’s never done anything like this. It’s really been fun to see him get involved and he’s really become a big part of it. It’s kind of fun to do it together.”
Jacks says the foundation has “changed my life” and “has been eye opening to me.” He recently auctioned off an 18-Karat gold Rolex watch he had owned for 50 years to benefit the family foundation. The winning bid: $1.2 million.
Nicklaus/Palmer rivalry is born: ’The big guy is out of the cage’
Nicklaus’ professional career was launched in 1961. His first professional win was the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont in a playoff over Arnold Palmer, who famously said following the tournament, “Now that the big guy is out of the cage, everybody better run for cover.” Palmer became Jack’s biggest rival and one of his best friends.
In his early years, Nicklaus relied heavily on his instructor, Jack Grout. Perhaps too much. One day Bobby Jones told Jack that the day Jones “became a golfer” was when he stopped running to his teacher whenever he had a problem.
Nicklaus heeded that advice, with Grout’s blessing, and said that was the day he became responsible for his own game. “I could do my own thinking,” he said.
Jack’s last official round on the PGA Tour was the 2005 British Open. He won 120 professional events, 73 on the Tour including 18 majors and was runner-up in another 19 majors. Only Tiger Woods comes close to those numbers with 15 majors and 10 runner-ups. Nicklaus briefly contemplated retirement in 1975, at the age of 35, when he took up snow skiing, but was talked out of it by his family. He won four majors after 35, including his sixth Masters in 1986 at the age of 46.
In 2005 the R&A hosted the British Open so Nicklaus could end his career at the esteemed St. Andrews course. He missed the cut and says he has never played an 18-hole round since where he’s holed out every putt.
“The way I play, if I hit a bad shot, I just threw down another ball,” he said. “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.”
At first, Nicklaus struggled with not being the stud who was a five-time PGA Player of the Year or whose career led to his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. “I didn’t have much thrill shooting 75,” he said. “Now, I get a thrill breaking 80.”
Nicklaus says his average drive is about 220 yards (he does not believe he can carry the ball 200 yards) and his clubhead speed is down in recent years from about 96 mph to 82 mph.
The last time he played was Dec. 30. He shot a 78 from the members tees at the Bear’s Club. He had 12 pars and six bogeys.
“I never make birdies,” he said. “I don’t think I made a birdie in November, or October.”
’I’m envious that guys can make a living playing golf’
The Bear’s Club is where Nicklaus runs into, and sometimes advises, today’s pros. He said he does not seek them out but always is available. Nicklaus is outspoken when it comes to comparing eras. He is proud of being part of a group of legendary golfers who paved the way for today’s pros and would not change anything about his era, with maybe one exception.
“I’m envious that guys can make a living playing golf,” he said. “When we played golf, we had to win golf tournaments to make a name to be able to go make a living.”
Nicklaus made just under $5.8 million in his career on the PGA Tour, which puts him 287th all-time. By comparison, four golfers made more than $6 million in 2019, led by Palm Beach County native Brooks Koepka, whose $9.7 million nearly doubled in one year what Nicklaus made in 43 years.
But Nicklaus also cherishes certain aspects of his era that today’s pros take for granted. He acknowledges advances in equipment have changed the game but believes they are a shortcut to greatness.
“I think the equipment we played with was far more challenging and rewarded us more for hard work than equipment of today,” he said. “I may get a little static for that because the average golfer likes the equipment better today and I understand that because it’s easier to play with.”
Still, golf is golf, and Nicklaus understands how he feels about his generation, today’s players will feel about their generation in 50 years.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “I thought the time I played my golf was fantastic. I enjoyed it. I loved it.
“I love being in the position of growing the game. I love the competition from the guys. I like the relationships we formed that are still lasting today. Those are all good things. I’m sure the guys today will have the same situations … the memories will last a lifetime.”
Long enough to see those green bananas ripen.
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.