“I still have a lot of things I would like to accomplish. I don’t think you are ever too old to dream or to set goals. But there is one thing I say often: ‘I don’t buy green bananas!’ In other words, let’s get moving, let’s not waste time.” – Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus has been called many things.
The Golden Bear. The GOAT. Peepaw.
OK, the last one is a nickname his 22 grandkids call him.
Later this month, Nicklaus will have another sobriquet attached to him: Octogenarian.
That’s correct, Jack William Nicklaus turns 80 on Jan. 21, and don’t we all feel a little older? It didn’t seem that long ago when Nicklaus won his sixth Masters at 46. Yet that was two generations ago.
Will Nicklaus feel 80?
“My body does,” he said. “My mind doesn’t.”
Nicklaus doesn’t allow his mind to rest. He maintains a hectic schedule for someone half his age as he spends most of his days with wife, Barbara, their five children and almost two dozen grandchildren.
He still finds time to oversee a PGA Tour event (his beloved Memorial Tournament), offer his expertise on another (Honda Classic at PGA National), design golf courses, assist Barbara in raising tens of millions of dollars for the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation and offer advice to many of the game’s top young players.
Even at 80, Nicklaus will remain one of the most relevant figures in the game, despite his playing career unofficially ending more than 20 years ago. This relevancy was never by design, he recently told me.
“The people I have working for me have a lot to do with it by keeping me out in front of the public through social media and the press, and keeping me relevant,” Nicklaus said. “And to a lesser degree, creating The Bear’s Club (in Jupiter) almost 20 years ago added it to it, with a lot of today’s young players being members and the opportunity to interact with them.
“I have played in just enough events on TV to remain relevant. And, of course, remaining heavily involved in golf course design is all part of it.”
Nicklaus remains golf’s gold standard with his record 18 major championships and 73 PGA Tour titles. Beyond the trophies, there is the noble way Nicklaus always acted on and off the course.
You’d have a better chance at seeing Nicklaus six-putt a hole than involve himself in any scandal.
“When I think of Jack, I think of his professionalism, the way he carried himself, his demeanor, his ability to focus 100 percent on any given shot,” fellow Hall of Famer Nick Price said. “He’s just one of those people you feel so very fortunate to have met and spent time with in your life. He set the bar for all of us, just like Tiger (Woods) has done for this generation.”
Nicklaus could follow the lead of most of his peers and gradually pull away from the game. Who could blame him for saying “no” once in a while?
That’s not Jack.
“With everything that has happened to me in golf, everything that golf has given me, I think there is a responsibility – a lifetime responsibility – to the game, whether it is growing the game, being a good steward of the game, helping young players and kids, staying relevant in the game and what’s happening,” Nicklaus said.
Last month, Nicklaus auctioned off a Rolex he had worn for 50 years to raise $1.2 million for his family foundation. Auctioning off a watch is such a fitting gesture because time has become his most precious commodity.
Yet Jack gives of his time so freely. Not only does he spend his Monday mornings writing personal congratulations letters to that weekend’s tournament winners, every young pro golfer knows if they want to meet with Nicklaus, all they have to do is ask.
“I’ve had a lot of kids come by,” Nicklaus says. “I’m very flattered by it, very flattered. I’ve been through it. If I can impart some wisdom that can help somebody, I’m just delighted.”
Rory McIlroy first had lunch with Jack a decade ago, and there’s no question that meeting helped McIlroy win four majors by 25.
“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.”
A year later, McIlroy received one of those congratulations letters from Nicklaus after he won the 2011 U.S. Open for his first major. There was an additional message from the Golden Bear.
“It said in it, ‘Now as a major champion you do have a responsibility to take this game forward,’” McIlroy said. “It really hit home with me.”
Nicklaus moved to South Florida in 1966 and has lived in the same house at Lost Tree in North Palm Beach since 1970. Noting that his father, Charlie, died at age 56, Jack always found time for his family, famously promising he would never go more than two weeks at a time on the road.
Nicklaus said it was his father who gave him the best advice.
“My father instilled in me that golf is a game, it is a sport, and not a business and you shouldn’t treat it like a business,” Nicklaus said. “He taught me how to handle people, how to be humble in victory, and gracious in both defeat and victory. He always reminded me that many of the people you meet on the way up will be met on the way down, so be mindful how you treat everyone.”
Nicklaus’ legacy in golf will forever be left behind as he has designed more than 300 golf courses; 15 of them are currently being used on the PGA Tour, including the Honda Classic’s Champion Course. Nicklaus plans on re-designing Muirfield Village after this year’s Memorial Tournament.
He will be working on the project when he’s 81.
Jack never woke up one day and said, “The heck with it, I’m taking today off.”
It’s not in his DNA.
You don’t become the world’s greatest golfer – or sportsman, for that matter – by taking a “me” day.
Since Nicklaus showed he was a golf prodigy, he worked long and hard at perfecting those skills. It was instilled in him at an early age by his father and his instructor, Jack Grout, who wouldn’t let him stop practicing until he finished with two perfect shots.
“Anybody can hit a good shot, Jackie Boy,” Grout would tell him.
Three-time PGA Tour winner Olin Browne remembers playing a practice round with Nicklaus at Bay Hill. Nicklaus asked him how he would play the par-4 third hole, which was a dogleg left over water.
“I told him I would aim at the bunker right and try to draw it, so the water was out of play,” Browne said. “Jack tees it up on the right side and aims directly at the water and cuts it into the left edge of the fairway.
“He winked at me and said, ‘Sometimes you’ve got to challenge the hole.’ It was like, ‘You mortals need to play it over there, but I can play it however I want.’”
Nicklaus’ list of accomplishments is longer than a Dustin Johnson drive. People forget he had more runner-up finishes in majors (19) than wins.
And we’re not just talking golf. Nicklaus has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as the Congressional Gold Medal. His name is on one of the world’s leading children’s hospitals, in Miami.
Yet when asked his greatest accomplishment, Nicklaus quickly said that was an “easy” question.
“My family,” he said. “I am blessed to have an incredible wife of almost 60 years; five tremendous children who have been successful in their own right and are great citizens; and 22 wonderful grandchildren who I have thoroughly enjoyed watching grow.”
Nicklaus isn’t ready for retirement. Not at 80, probably not at 85. He is, however, realistic.
“I still have a lot of things I would like to accomplish,” Nicklaus said. “I don’t think you are ever too old to dream or to set goals. But there is one thing I say often: ‘I don’t buy green bananas!’ In other words, let’s get moving, let’s not waste time.”
Jack never does.
He’s not about to start now.