From the Archives: Jack Nicklaus' Last Stand

T.R. Massey
Jack Nicklaus chips out of the sand on 14 during the 2000 Memorial Tournament.

Editor’s note: Though Central Ohio will have to wait until July for the Memorial Tournament this year, you can still appreciate the resiliency, dedication and iron will of its founder, Jack Nicklaus, by reading this May 2000 Columbus Monthly profile of Upper Arlington’s favorite son written during the twilight of his playing career.

Don't look now. Try to play it cool, and sneak a peek when you think he won't notice. When you do, you'll see shadows creeping up on the Greatest Golfer of the 20th Century. Oh, he's the same guy—looking back from the green to the tee on a long par 4, you can tell it's him headed toward you. But gone are the days when Jack Nicklaus was the world's most dominant player, striding down the fairways of a major golf tournament secure in the knowledge that he could beat anyone, anywhere. 

The Golden Bear, the most famous golfer who ever lived, the man who won 18 majors, two U.S. Amateur titles and has 100 wins worldwide, has turned 60. On Jan. 21, he hit the big six-oh, a birthday so heinous, they don't even have one of those stupid "Lordy, lordy" rhymes about it. Nicklaus was playing in a Senior tournament in Hawaii the day it happened, and one of his friends had the temerity to give him a book counseling sex practices for people over 60. Imagine that—one day he's 46 and winning his sixth Masters, the next day his friends are making sport of his abilities in the sack.

The age, while an artificial milestone, is important, perhaps more for the world than Nicklaus. Ask him, any of his friends or family, and they'll tell you, "It's just another day.” But it's come during a year when his pride and joy, the Memorial Tournament, is in its 25th year, and he's the honoree (it's called the Memorial because its hook is honoring great golfers of the past). He's also said that this likely will be the last year he will play in all four majors in the same season on both the PGA and Senior tours. 

It's setting up to be Nicklaus's last stand—the last time he publicly acknowledges that he believes he's the man who can whip all comers at the game that's made him famous. He says he won't tee it up if he doesn't think he can win. Can he, in light of an ever-burgeoning career as a golf course architect, an artificial hip and a faltering business that is distracting even to the greatest concentrator of our time, pull off another victory against men half (or less) his age? 

On the eve of his induction as the Memorial honoree, Nicklaus' friends, family, business associates and contemporaries Gary Player and Tom Watson discuss Upper Arlington's favorite son—his health, his business, his game, his outlook on life. Following is a look at the past and the future during what is the last time anyone can say without laughing, "Tiger Woods isn't the greatest golfer on the planet. Jack Nicklaus is."

How's the Hip?

After nearly four decades of constant pain, Nicklaus finally relented and had his hip replaced. He says when he was 23, he took a series of cortisone injections in his left hip for some pain, and the joint degenerated to the point where he could barely walk. The surgery was six days after his 59th birthday.

At the time, Nicklaus had told people that he wouldn't play another PGA Tour event after the year 2000. Surgeons in Boston's New England BaptistHospital implanted a ceramic hip joint, and a couple of months later Nicklaus was hitting balls. But he rushed the comeback and his high spirits gave way to crushing reality. "The little setback he had last July was probably a blessing in disguise," says Barbara Nicklaus. “I think he found that he couldn't play his way into shape. The only thing holding that hip in place is the muscles surrounding it. You have to get those muscles into shape."

Barbara, who turned 60 only 38 days after her husband ("He's much older," she says with a laugh), says Jack is dedicated to playing well this year. "He's strong and excited," she says. "He does some form of exercise every day." 

Now, there is no pain in his hip. "I'm not sure he knows he's 60," says Marilyn Hutchinson, Nicklaus's younger sibling, who lives in Columbus. “He doesn't act like any 60-year-olds I know." 

Though he hasn't played up to the standards of his prime recently, observers caught a glimpse of the old Nicklaus late last year at the father-son event he and son Gary won against other famous golfing father-son combos. Nicklaus was driving the ball as far as Gary (who recently earned playing privileges on the PGA Tour after eight previous tries) and rolling in clutch putts. Gary finished second at the Bell South Classic in the first week of April, earning him enough money to stay on the PGA Tour for another year. Afterward, Jack said the combination of feeling healthy and having a son who was on the Tour was fueling his desire to play more competitive golf against younger men. "People see the age as more of a milestone than Jack does, but the gleam in his eye while he's been practicing, I'll just say, watch out," says longtime friend and business associate John Hines. "He saw how hard Gary worked and he's been more competitive." 

Tom Watson, one of the greatest players of all time as well as one of Nicklaus's main rivals in the 1970s and '80s, says he played a couple of events in Hawaii in January with Nicklaus. "He hit some Nicklausian long irons," says Watson, who describes Nicklaus as the best long-iron player who ever lived. “I asked him if he hurt and he said he was stiff, but he didn't hurt. He wants to be pain-free and golf is pain free." 

That doesn't mean he's pain-free. Though he declinedto be interviewed for this story, he's publicly stated that he's struggled with a foot fracture that occurred last year and says he's had a hard time finding a golf shoe that properly supports him. There's arthritis in the foot now, and his hip does tire, though it's not sore. He's also had some aches in his left wrist and rib cage, but says he realizes that it's part of being 60. 

After working with business partner and swing coach JimFlick in mid March, Nicklaus was excited about his prospects. "No matter how old you get, you can always find a new thing to work on," says Barbara. 

However, Flick said Nicklaus was not in the groove. “He is still searching for a way to put his game back together based on what his body can do, in light of the hip surgery," he says. Flick said he was trying to get Nicklaus to open his stance and hit the high, fading shots that used to be his bread and butter. "I'm just setting him up the way Jack Grout [Nicklaus' original teacher at Scioto Country Club] did. He has kind of gotten away from it and I'm trying to get him back to it." 

In light of this, what is he still able to do on a golf course?

Future Golf Prospects

Jack II (Nicklaus's oldest son answers to Junior, Jackie or Jack II) says his dad can still play. But can Nicklaus win a major at 60? "I think he can," says Jackie. “Dad's not going to kid himself or anyone else. He can't compete with the young lions out there on a weekly basis, but he can still compete on a given week. As he's done throughout his career, he'll prepare himself for the majors and peak his game for those events. Hopefully he'll capture some of that magic again this year." 

Jackie has carried his dad's golf bag during many of those majors and will again for two of them this year (brother Steve gets to caddie in the other two). He also knows of Nicklaus' legendary will, which never seems to age. Jackie says that even today, when he plays a round with his dad, he can't point out the fact that he's ahead. “Every green after that, he'll one putt," says Jackie. “If you're ahead, the best thing to do is be quiet about it."  

Jackie's not the only one who refuses to discount Nicklaus' chances of winning. Ken Bowden, who has co-authored 10 books with Nicklaus since the two first met in the late 1960s, has watched Nicklaus' rise to golf immortality. “He can certainly win on the Senior Tour, probably will," says Bowden. “On the regular tour, a lot of things would have to go right. He could be a contender. The challenge at his age is to get four days together in peak form. If that happens, yeah, he could. I wouldn't count him out. I never have. I've learned my lesson over the years. It's a possibility, not a probability. I don't think he'd play if he didn't think he could be competitive."

Gary Player, one of the Big Three with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, will speak at Nicklaus' Memorial honoree ceremony. He's more skeptical of Nicklaus's potential in the PGA Tour majors. “I think it's a 1,000-to-one that Jack will win [a major]," he says. "He'd have to hole all kinds of putts." 

Player believes that older men can no longer compete with younger players once they've hit the age of 56. "We've had our time," says Player. “Jack's had more than his share. God doesn't allow you to have more than your turn." 

But Player says it's not whether Nicklaus wins again—it's about his legacy of sportsmanship. “We all had our chances to beat each other like a drum. I once beat Jack in a 56-hole match play event, and afterward, he looked me in the eye and said, 'Well done, you played fantastic.’ He's not the best winner in the world, he's the best loser. It's easy to be the best winner, but it's hard to be the best loser."

Memorial Honoree

It took much cajoling on the part of the Captain's Club, the group of men who help run the Memorial and decide who will be its honoree, but they finally convinced Nicklaus that 2000 was his year. (Nicklaus wanted Payne Stewart, who was killed in a tragic plane crash in 1999.) 

"Everybody knew that we were going to honor Jack at some time," says former LPGA commissioner and current Captain's Club member Charlie Mecham. "The coming together of the 25th anniversary and Jack's 60th birthday seemed to make this the ideal time." 

It seems fitting. The Memorial Tournament started in 1976 and was a big tournament from the get-go-because Nicklaus' name was attached to it. “We planned on it being big from Day One," says Pandel Savic, chairman of the Memorial and Nicklaus' friend since 1962. “We now think we are one of the top five or six tournaments." 

Memorial Tournament director Jim Wisler says the event is a reflection of Nicklaus. "Everything he does, he does right," says Wisler. “We've always concentrated on making the tournament better. We're always looking for ways to improve it, from the player's standpoint and spectator facilities. There's always a list of things we want to do."

Barbara says her husband is "humbled and thrilled” at the prospect of being the honoree. He's also excited about the Nicklaus Museum, currently under construction just north of the Schottenstein Center. The museum, dedicated to every facet of his life, is scheduled to open this fall. It was originally scheduled to be built at Muirfield Village, but residents didn't want it there. When officials at Ohio State heard about the opening, they couldn't offer the land to the school's most famous athletic alumnus fast enough. 

It's a fine way to mark what is potentially the last year of his competitive career. In the back of Nicklaus's mind, whether he wants to admit it or not, the end looms. “There's no time to back off," says Savic. “I think of my own age, and I think it won't be long before it's over with. The next few years go like a snap." 

Nicklaus always has been known as a perfectionist, a man who throws himself wholeheartedly into everything he does. At this age, he has even more reason to run hard. "Jack is invincible," says sister Marilyn. "He doesn't think negatively."

Barbara says that part of Nicklaus' persona is derived from his skills as a golfer, and it's difficult to let it go. “I think any athlete struggles with that," she says. “But there is a very small percentage of men who are totally happy with their profession. Jack is totally happy in two professions, which is phenomenal. He now knows his design work is taking precedence over his playing. He knows he will leave golf courses that will make a mark beyond his life.”

Nicklaus the Architect 

Nicklaus, besides being the greatest golfer ever, also is famous for his course architecture. His friends say he never forgets a hole he plays—the characteristics of the landscape, hazards and greens. The Nicklaus Design component of his business is the foundation of the privately held Golden Bear International Inc. It's self-billed as the world's largest golf course design firm. 

Nicklaus' Golden Bear opened an industry-record number of courses for clients in the last two years—17 in 1998 and 25 in '99. Currently, there are 209 Nicklaus-designed courses open for play worldwide (mostly in America, but also around the world, especially in Asia) and Nicklaus has had 29 courses ranked in the top 100 by Golf Digest, Golf or Golfweek during his career. Fifty-eight of his courses have hosted professional or significant amateur events. 

Ron Whitten, architecture editor for Golf Digest, says Nicklaus is both good and prolific. “First, he's a great strategist," he says. “When you cut away all the bells and whistles, there has to be certain playing characteristics that elevate it above what other people are doing. Jack has always brought a lot of thought into his projects, trying to require golfers to play different shots. 

The knock on Nicklaus's designs among golfers has been that Nicklaus makes players hit the shots that defined his own career, especially high fades on approach shots to greens. “I think it's been an unfair charge," says Whitten. “He does do that, but it's oversimplification to say that he does that for 18 holes. In recent years, he and others have gone to open greens where you can bounce it on." 

Whitten says Nicklaus has adapted to the changing desires of golfers and builders over the years. “He used to have different shelves and levels on greens, where everyone could hit it, but only a skilled golfer could get it close," he says. "The levels were abrupt. There were severe contours. There was nothing wrong with that back in the '70s, but when green speeds began to approach nine or 10, they were unputtable. It's a reaction to agronomy and new turfgrasses, not criticism. He was reacting to new developments.” 

Whitten says the other thing that marks Nicklaus' influence is his insistence, more than any other architect, on immaculate playing conditions. “He was the first to personally install superintendents," he says. “His contract would state that you would hire his guys for the first three years to grow it in right. He elevated the standards. Has he added to the cost of the game? Yes. Is it something we are willing to pay for? Yes."

From the beginning, says Whitten, Nicklaus produced "contenders," tough and challenging golf courses that were considered some of the world's best. He's moved away from those ultra-difficult "tests of golf” as his career has progressed. "A lot of Jack Nicklaus observers want to see him do another ultimate expression, and people are hoping that Bear's Club [Nicklaus' newest club in Florida] will be it.”

Within the industry, Whitten says Nicklaus has paid his dues and most architects have come to respect him. “Will he go down as the greatest golf course architect of all time?" asks Whitten. "No, because he's the greatest golfer of all time. In architecture, he's his own worst enemy. He could build 20 Pine Valleys and people will still remember all his majors. It's human nature." 

However, Whitten says Nicklaus is now a brand name. “It represents something," he says. One of Nicklaus's biggest clients, multimillionaire real estate developer Lyle Anderson, knows what Whitten means.

He's commissioned Nicklaus to design 11 courses, including Desert Highlands and Los Campanos in Arizona. “I'd always admired his integrity and image," says Anderson. “I thought he'd bring that to the table, and I wanted his name. I was interested in marketing my courses and his name helped. When you tell someone it's going to be a Jack Nicklaus golf course, it will be quality, you expect to see a quality course. What a nice start for me, when I haven't built anything yet. In Hawaii [in their latest project together], I've sold $100 million in property and we're still scraping dirt around. People know it's Jack and it's going to be terrific. There's a lot of value in that for me from a marketing standpoint" 

Anderson says Nicklaus always works for a design fee only—not a stake in the project. "It's very pure," he says. "I use him over and over because he produces great golf courses. I hope to do 11 more." 

Anderson, like everyone else, is aware of Nicklaus' reputation of perfectionism and being hard to get along with. But he says his relationship with Nicklaus has always been good. "Jack and I never have any problems," he says. “We discuss what I want and he always says, 'I'm here to please. I don't find Jack to be dictatorial. There's never been a project he came out and surprised me on. He's always interested in what is going on in my mind." 

Perhaps, says Anderson, the reason Nicklaus has such a reputation is because of his celebrity. “People are afraid to talk to him, and this forces him to interpret what people are thinking," says Anderson. "They are intimidated by his fame and can't talk to him. I've always found him to be easygoing. You can disagree with him—you can, but you better have something to say." 

"People are afraid to come up and tell Jack what they want or what he needs to hear," he says. "People have awesome respect for him and don't want to get out of line a little bit. Jack and I disagree on a lot of things, but we've never had an argument. We just talk it through and resolve it. But I can see it in other people. They are afraid of him—whether it's because of fear, lack of confidence, respect—that's the price of fame that Jack has paid. He's a very misunderstood person." 

This is apparent when you talk to anyone associated with Nicklaus. There is a palpable circle-the-wagons mindset. This is especially true when one discusses the disastrous state of Golden Bear Golf, the part of Nicklaus' business holdings that he took public in 1996.

Business Problems

It's been well reported over the years that Nicklaus, while being the best player in the world, hasn't always been the best businessman. Over the last 30 years, he's been in financial trouble three times, and the most recent scrape was the worst. 

In 1996, he split part of Golden Bear International into a public company called Golden Bear Golf. It was comprised of several entities, one of which was in charge of managing Nicklaus' licensing of products. Two others were Paragon Construction (which built the courses he designed) and Golden Bear Golf Centers. The course design business stayed in the private realm.

The initial public offering raised about $37 million, and shares began trading at $16. At their peak, shares sold at about $21. Nicklaus himself retained about 94 percent of the company's voting rights. 

There were problems quickly. The golf centers and construction company lost money. In 1997, Golden Bear Golf initially stated its losses at $2.9 million, then was forced to restate losses at $24.7 million. The company's most recent 10-K filing (posted in November 1999) states that evidence was found that management of Paragon had falsified records, misrepresented the status of construction projects and lied about revenues, costs and profits. The Securities and Exchange Commission informed the company that it was investigating.

The problems spiraled out of control. Golden Bear Golf stock plummeted to $4 per share, then even further. After the stock had lost two-thirds of its value, Golden Bear stock lost its NASDAQ listing because the company no longer met the market requirements for net tangible assets. Share prices dropped to less than 40 cents per share. Shareholders began to cluster and sue. 

Last Christmas, Golden Bear announced a plan to settle a shareholder class action lawsuit and buy back the 5.5 million outstanding shares of the company. This means Nicklaus will have only one company again, Golden Bear International, with no public trading of its stock. 

Florida-based lawyer Michael Pucillo, who represents the shareholders in the case, says Golden Bear will pay $3.5 million in cash to persons who purchased during the "class period” of the stock option. Nicklaus also will pay 75 cents for each outstanding share, which means the total to take the company back to the private domain will be about $7.5 million. Shares were trading at 42 cents per share when the announcement was made, and went up to about 68 cents before the buyout.  

Nicklaus has not spoken publicly about the debacle, but his friend Pandel Savic wasn't above stating the obvious. “I think it bothered him some and embarrassed him some," he says. “They didn't do what they wanted to do. It's a learning process. Everyone in business knows that. He just says, 'We'll do better next time!’ " 

Other friends say this is Nicklaus's way. Bob Hoag, a friend from Scioto Country Club, says Nicklaus never looks back. “Not ever," he says. Nicklaus himself has said he doesn't reflect on the past. It's a lesson learned from golf—the only important shot is the one you're about to make. 

Rearview Mirror 

Nicklaus, like all great athletes, is blessed with a short memory: He doesn't let past defeats get in the way of competing today. He will put the business troubles and hip surgery behind him quickly, and busy himself with making his last stand on the golf course. 

There are lots of “ifs" to consider, but making bets on Nicklaus has always been a good risk. Imagine the buzz in Columbus if 60-year-old Nicklaus, the honoree in the 25th playing of his own golf tournament, was a stroke out of the lead going into Sunday's round. Can you wrap your mind around the scenario: Jack Nicklaus beating out today's hot young golf crowd?

Sure, the idea is laughable. No 60-year old has taken on the top players in the sport and won. But still. One gets the feeling that the best golfer ever to hold a club might not be done quite yet. If he says he's not finished, then he's not finished—would you fool around with a big golden bear, even an aging one?

As the clock quietly ticks and the shadows grow long, we can collectively hold our breath and watch to see if Jack Nicklaus can summon his greatness and make time stand still again, putting a finishing exclamation point on a career that has no parallel.

Maybe he'll show us the magic one more time. 


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