Originally published in People Magazine
June 23, 1975
By R.B. Scott
As the chartered twin-engine Lear jet streaked toward Palm Beach on the one-and-a-half-hour flight from Atlanta, Jack William Nicklaus sipped a vodka and tonic and puffed on a borrowed cigarette. “You’ll never see me smoking one of these around my kids,” the big, blond golfer said. “I don’t want to set a bad example.”
Nicklaus had only tied for fourth in the Atlanta Golf Classic that afternoon. Perhaps it was because his mind was really on the U.S. Open, which is being held this week in Medinah, Ill. A win there would put him within two tournaments of golf’s fabled Grand Slam—the Masters is already in his bag, leaving the British Open in July and the PGA in August. It’s not as if Nicklaus will have many more chances to sweep golf’s four most prestigious events in a single season. “At 35,” he says wryly, “I’ve noticed that the tournaments have been getting longer, and I’ve been getting shorter.”
The small jet pulled up to the private air terminal at West Palm Beach, and Nicklaus and his caddy Angelo Argea unloaded 15 cases of Mr. Pibb, a new soft drink from Coca-Cola (Nicklaus used to represent them). “The kids’ll love this,” he said, his ruddy face lighting up beneath that shock of beachboy hair. “You can’t get this stuff anywhere—not even in New York.”
At home his four boys—Jackie, 13, Steve, 12, Gary, 6, and Michael, 2—and daughter, Nan, 10, were waiting when the Grand Prix from Jack Nicklaus Pontiac in Delray Beach pulled into the palm-lined driveway. “Hey, where did you get that shiner?” Jack asked as Michael leapt into his father’s arms. “It’s a long story, I’ll tell you about it later,” Barbara Nicklaus answered for her young son. (Michael had rolled off a bed.) “How’d you do on the course today?” Nicklaus inquired of his namesake. “Okay,” answered young Jackie quietly. “How’d you do, Dad?”
Without replying, Nicklaus embraced his oldest son and kissed him on the cheek. “It’s good to see you,” he whispered. Then in succession he made the rounds of his children. “Nan’s got a softball game tomorrow,” Barbara reminded her husband. “Are you going to go?” Without hesitating to check his schedule, Nicklaus replied, “Sure, what time?”
After 14 years on the PGA tour, Nicklaus’ separations from his family are still painful—not made any less so by the incredible success of those years. He has won 15 major tournaments, more than any other golfer, and has set an all-time earning record (currently $2.4 million). Now all he needs to transcend the barrier between mere superstar and immortal is to be the first pro to win the Grand Slam. (Bobby Jones won a slightly different Grand Slam in 1930 as an amateur.) “I don’t know whether you’d call this an obsession or a goal,” he says. “Let’s just say it’s a dream I’ve been having for the past 14 years. I don’t think it’s realistic at a time when we have so many good golfers on the tour, but it’s a nice dream anyway.”
As a boy Jack Nicklaus’ dreams were of more heroic sports than golf. He was introduced to athletics in every form by his father—the owner of four drugstores in Columbus, Ohio—who had once played professional football for the Portsmouth Spartans, later the Detroit Lions. “I’ve been competitive ever since I can remember,” says Nicklaus. “I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did.” In grade school he plunged into football, basketball and tennis, learning golf only to keep his father company as the elder Nicklaus trudged a local course four miles each day to rehabilitate an injured ankle. “When he would rest,” Jack recalls, “I’d take out his clubs and practice. Finally he asked me if I wanted to learn the game.”
Young Jack was turned over to the golf pro at the Scotio Country Club, Jack Grout, who recognized the boy’s natural talent instantly. (The Grout-Nicklaus relationship endures. Retired as a club pro, Grout lives near Nicklaus in Florida and is teaching the game to Jack’s two older sons.) At 13 Jack won the Ohio State Junior Championship. At 15 he qualified for the U.S. Amateur. Because it was played in late September, he had to decide whether to enter the tournament or quarterback his high school football team. “My decision to play golf broke my father’s heart, although he didn’t admit it until years later,” Jack says.
At the end of his senior year he turned down a basketball scholarship to Ohio State. “Although I had doubts then,” he says, “it was a good decision. Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek were in the class behind me, and I sure would have spent a lot of time on the bench.”
Instead he began conquering the amateur golf world as no other golfer had before or has since:
—At 19 he captured the U.S. Amateur title.
—At 20 he was runner-up to Arnold Palmer in the U.S. Open, with an amateur record of 282 that stands to this day. Then he broke Ben Hogan’s course mark by an incredible 18 strokes at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa.
—At 21 Nicklaus won the U.S. Amateur Championship a second time, and in the same year took the Western Amateur, Big Ten and NCAA titles.
During his senior year at college, Nicklaus sold insurance at night to support his wife, Barbara, whom he met at Ohio State, his infant son, Jack—and his amateur golf. In November 1961, just two months before his 22nd birthday, Nicklaus turned professional. Because he was traveling so much, he was asked to leave school before graduation. (Since then he has been awarded an honorary doctorate from Ohio State.) “I had been taught to play golf for fun, not for money. I was making $18,000 a year selling insurance anyway. But I had won everything I could as an amateur, and they were limiting the number of professional tournaments an amateur could enter. I just wanted a chance to play against the best in the world.” In his first professional start he faltered and earned only $33.33. But his nerves settled, and five months later he won his first tournament—the U.S. Open. To do it he had to survive a spine-chilling 18-hole playoff against the indisputable king of the sport, Arnold Palmer, backed by his army of rabid fans.
According to Barbara Nicklaus, Jack promised her from the start that he would “never be away from home for more than 15 days—and I don’t think he has ever broken it,” she says. “When the children were small, we traveled with him, but now that they are getting older we only go to the really important tournaments, or just for weekends.”
When the tour swings through Florida, Nicklaus always spends his nights at home. “I hate being in hotel rooms alone,” he says. “I can’t sleep, so I sit up watching television or reading—and it’s hard on my game. When Barbara’s there, I’m asleep in a minute.”
As Jack’s fame on the circuit grew, so did his endorsements off the fairways. Among other companies, he represents Hart Schaffner & Marx clothing and Hathaway shirts, who combine to provide him with a new outfit for each day of televised tournaments. What does he do with all the clothes? “I know a lot of guys who wear the same size.”
In addition to his endorsements, Jack is president of Golden Bear, Inc., which controls a half dozen companies and employs around 50 people. He has offices in North Palm Beach, Columbus, London, Madrid and Geneva. Nicklaus spends two frantic days a week at his Florida office, reviewing progress on the 10 golf courses he is building around the world, among other business commitments. “I promised [pro golfer] Jim Dent I’d put a new face on his driver,” he tells his secretary during a lunchtime meeting with the staff. (His research and development lab does the job.) “Remind me to take it to him at the Open.”
Nicklaus’ proudest accomplishment to date is the 6,978-yard Muirfield Village course he built at Dublin, Ohio outside Columbus. “I think it’s one of the great courses, like the Masters,” he says. “It’s designed with the spectator in mind—high mounds around the greens for easy viewing. I wanted to leave something that would be here long after I’m gone. Someday I hope it will be as well known as the Augusta National.”
Once the upstart challenger, the mature Nicklaus seems pleased by the emergence of a pack of lookalike, tow-headed challengers, most notably Johnny Miller, 28. “Johnny’s a good boy, and he handles himself real well,” says Nicklaus. “Of course he’s young, real young. He’ll come along.” Nicklaus is unsparing in professional advice to his young competitors. On the practice range at Atlanta a few days before, Nicklaus had walked over to Jack Ewing. “You’re hitting behind the ball because you’re setting up wrong,” he said. “Pull your shoulders square. Now watch, you’ll go out and shoot a 62 tomorrow.”
Nicklaus is determined that golf not be lured into the contrived winner-take-all challenge matches which have beset tennis. “They would tend to cheapen the importance of major tournaments,” he says. “Who will want to play the Masters for $50,000 when he can earn $1 million from 18 holes of match play?” Nicklaus, for one: he turned down precisely that deal for a nationally televised match with Johnny Miller.
Jack talks wistfully of the day he can slow down. “This year has been the most hectic of my life,” he said recently in his waterfront North Palm Beach home, which has a pool, putting green and grass tennis court. “We’ve been trying to build a national membership at Muirfield, and that takes a lot of exhibition rounds with prospective members. I only want those who believe in what I’m doing, not those who will join just because I’m Jack Nicklaus. After all this is over I’m going to start spending more time with my family. Barbara’s kept the family together so far—she’s really a strong woman. But the boys are getting to an age where they really need me.”
Despite his allegiances to family and business, for the 10 days preceding the Open, Nicklaus planned to sequester himself in Medinah and play the course again and again. “I’m right where I want to be—a little off my game,” Nicklaus says, “but not too far off. You’ve got to be peaking just as the big tournaments get here—like I did at the Masters.” He reminds a listener—and himself: “The slam isn’t an obsession, just a wild dream.”
Out in Las Vegas, Jimmy the Greek said it was wild, all right. The odds he quoted on the Golden Bear winning the Grand Slam are 90-1.