In the sporting world, few names resonate as much as Nicklaus. Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, the winningest golfer to ever strike one of those small dimpled balls has taken a game and turned it into a lifetime career spanning far beyond drives and putts. With 18 majors and 118 professional tournament wins, Nicklaus’ prowess on the course is unmatched, yet he keeps things in perspective. The roles of consummate family man, mentor, preeminent golf course designer of his time and philanthropist all add to the character of a man who has transcended sport. Here, Nicklaus, who lives in North Palm Beach, takes a moment to talk golf with naplesilllustrated.com.
What does the game of golf mean to you?
I have always called golf ‘the greatest game of all,’ a game for a lifetime, and in many ways, it means everything to me. I have always put family first in my life, with golf and business to follow, but family remains my priority. But with that said, golf has given so much to my family and me.
It provided me with a wonderful hobby and passion as a boy and teenager, and then provided me a career, first as a player and then as a golf course designer. It has allowed me to travel the world, visit some of the most beautiful destinations you can describe, and to meet countless wonderful people, many of whom I consider friends.
But golf has also given me a vehicle to reach children all over the world. At The First Tee foundation, the game of golf provides an ideal vehicle to teach children valuable character-building, life lessons. We can produce good citizens, not just good golfers. In addition, golf has given me, as well as my family, a platform to raise money for charities, especially for children and pediatric health care. Interestingly, when we started the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation more than five years ago, so much of it came out of conversations we had about the Honda Classic moving to Palm Beach County and the charity it would benefit.
How has golf changed since your career began?
It’s changed in many ways, but in many ways it hasn’t changed at all. The most obvious are changes in equipment. We have graduated from wooden shafts to steel shafts and persimmon heads to graphite shafts and titanium heads. The golf ball travels farther than it ever has, and, in turn, has forced the game to change along with it. We have to make courses longer to accommodate this. All the while, however, golf has maintained most of its wonderful traditions and the aspects that make it such a special game. At our game’s foundation are honesty, integrity and sportsmanship. These values have transcended eras and generations, and are still very much a part of the sport today.
What was your most memorable moment on the golf course?
All of my victories are memorable, but if I had to choose just one, it would be the 1986 Masters. That Masters, which was my final major championship win, came at a point in my career when nobody expected me to win, including myself. Other people were just too polite to say it to me.
For the majority of my career at Augusta, most people expected me to win, whether it was the media, the fans, other players, or myself, and I don’t think anybody did in ’86. To have my wife, my mother and my sister in the gallery, and to have my son Jackie on the bag, only helped frame a moment I will never forget. Not many people know this but that year was the first time my mother had been to Augusta National and the Masters since my first tournament there in 1959. I don’t remember why, but she obviously knew something I didn’t.
What is the most difficult aspect of your redesign of the Champions golf course at PGA National, home of the Honda Classic this February?
I think I would have to say The Bear Trap … I think that the wind is what makes that golf course so difficult. Without wind, I don’t think there is really very much that is all too difficult about the golf course. Even The Bear Trap, which tends to eat everybody’s lunch, is only a 6- or 7-iron on 15. It’s a long iron off the tee on 16, and a 7- or 8-iron into the green. And then it’s probably a 7-iron or 8-iron shot on 17, without the wind. Now, if and when the wind blows, then all bets are off. And, of course, the finishing hole is a strong par 5, too. It is a really solid finishing hole with a new tee now. The course has a good flow to it, and it’s one that yields to good golf, but certainly penalizes when you are not playing very well.