Jan 20, 2020
Jack Nicklaus at 80: Family and friends talk about the legendary golfer, who settled down in Palm Beach County years ago
By Tom D’Angelo
Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post
Jack Nicklaus moved to Palm Beach County in 1966. Over 50 years later, he still calls his place home. With Jack’s 80th birthday Tuesday, we talked to some of his favorite people
The greatest-ever golfer, Jack Nicklaus, moved to Palm Beach County back in 1966 with his wife Barbara. Over 50 years later, as Jack turns 80 on Tuesday, the couple still calls this county their home.
Ahead of Nicklaus’ 80th birthday, Palm Beach Post sports reporter Tom D’Angelo reached out to his family members and some of his closest friends. Below are some of their favorite memories of the man known as The Golden Bear.
Barbara Nicklaus: By his side for 60 years
Barbara Bash was walking through the Ohio State campus when she ran into a friend from high school. Her friend was dating Jack Nicklaus.
“Unfortunately, she had to go to class,” Barbara said. “Jack walked me to work and called me up that night and asked me for a date.”
Jack and Barbara Nicklaus will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this July.
“We were 20 when we got married. We were both still in school,” Barbara said. “He was trying to sell insurance; he was trying to go to school and trying to play golf and really not doing any of them up to his expectations. Anything he’s ever gone into he’s done 110 percent. Jack said, ‘If I want to be the best I’ve got to play against the best.’ That’s when we both decided it was best for him to turn pro. We didn’t have two cents between us. I guess we were young and dumb, had three children before we could afford to have one.
“When we started out, he was 100 percent golf. When he turned pro, he made a vow he would never be gone more than two weeks at a time. He said, ‘I don’t want my children to grow up and say I wish I’d known my dad.’ He would fly across the country (between rounds to get to one of his kids’ games).
“When that was all happening our kids thought, that’s what dads do. Now that they’re married and have kids of their own, they say, ‘Mom, I can’t believe dad got to all these events.’”
Jack Nicklaus II: ′Most amazing role model’
Jack, 58, is the oldest of the Nicklaus’ five children. Jack is very involved in his parents’ business ventures as president of Nicklaus Design, a member of the board of the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation and chairman of Muirfield Village Golf Club and the Memorial Tournament.
Jack and his brother, Gary, both played on the PGA Tour. Jack admits Gary is the better player, “although we still have pretty good competitions,” he said.
“My dad has been the most amazing role model to me,” Jack said. “He’s made the right choices, he’s said the right things, he done the right things. I’m so proud of the choices and the direction he’s taken in his life. He was always there. You can be there and not present, but my mom and dad were always there, and they were present at well.
“One year he was playing at the World Series of Golf in Akron, Ohio. We had a big football game on Friday night in the Glades, Benjamin versus Glades Day. He jumps on his plane right after his round on Friday, flies into the middle of the state, gets to our football game. We end up winning the game, he runs onto the field, gives a great congratulations hug and said, ‘I got to get back to Ohio to finish my golf tournament.’ I’d like to say he won the event, but he did not that year.
“Not everybody has the success to afford to get on a plane to watch their children play, but even fewer people that have the ability to do that make the call to go do that. That’s amazing in my eyes to always be there and be present. And mom and dad have done that throughout their lives.”
Nan O’Leary: Daddy’s girl
Nan is the Nicklaus’ middle child and only daughter. Nan was an infant when she inhaled a piece of crayon which got lodged in her esophagus. A sliver of the crayon would block air flow and she started having choking episodes. But by the time Jack and Barbara would get her to the doctor, it moved so she was breathing normally again.
After several episodes they took her to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus where a scan showed a piece of a blue crayon in her chest. It was then Barbara said if her and Jack were in a position to help anyone, it would be children.
Today we have the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation.
Nan’s fondest memories of her dad are much more pleasant:
“Every Christmas and birthday he would specifically shop for an antique for me,” she said. “He may have been in Scotland, he may have been in North Palm, he may have been somewhere else. So, I have the most wonderful collection of different types of antiques from all over. That’s something that’s special to us, something that was just mine and dad’s.
“Growing up, my dad and brothers always went on hunting trips or fishing trips. My trip was the British Open. I went with him to exhibitions or work trips or site visits to all different countries in Europe before the British Open. Once I said, ‘I want to go to Paris.’ We were in Germany and he’s like, “yeah, yeah, yeah.” He surprised me. We went for dinner in Paris and spent the night. I’ll always remember that. Mom would always meet us at the British Open. That was always my time with dad.
“He teases me that I’m his favorite daughter and I tease him that he’s my favorite dad.”
Kelly O’Leary: ‘Wow, he’s a pretty big deal.’
Kelly has a bond with ‘Peepaw’ that none of the other 21 grandchildren can say: They share the same birthday. Kelly, the daughter of Nan and Bill O’Leary, will be 21 on Tuesday. “I’ll have a different celebration,” she said when asked about the party the family threw for Jack and Barbara that included about 200 people.
“Having the same birthday with him is awesome,” she said. “It’s really cool because, since my mom is the only daughter in their family, me being her only daughter with four boys as well and sharing the same birthday as him, is really special.”
Kelly is a junior at the University of Georgia, the college both her parents attended. In 2016 she and her cousin, Will Nicklaus, helped caddy for Jack at the Par 3 Contest played each year before the Masters. The threesome included Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson.
“That was one of the coolest experiences,” she said. “Most of the time to me it’s ‘that’s just Peepaw.’ At the Masters, that was one of the first times I ever felt and been like, ‘Wow, he’s a pretty big deal.’”
Kelly says what makes Jack and Barbara so special is how close they are to each of their grandchildren and involved in their lives.
“They make sure everybody has a close bond with them. That’s amazing.”
Rory McIlroy: ′He’s Mr. Nicklaus.′
During one of McIlroy’s early meetings with Jack, more than a decade ago, his dad, Gerry, shook Nicklaus’ hand and called him “Jack.” Rory told his father, “You don’t call him Jack. He’s Mr. Nicklaus.”
McIlroy, who lives in Jupiter and is a member of the Bear’s Club, continues to admire Nicklaus and now sees him as a mentor and friend. It was Jack who informed McIlroy in September he won the Jack Nicklaus Award as the 2019 Player of Year.
With Jack and McIlroy sitting at a table, the trophies McIlroy won last season were brought out one by one. Finally, out came the Nicklaus Trophy.
“I’ve already got two of those,” McIlroy said.
“You’ve got three now,” Nicklaus said. “Congratulations.”
McIlroy was genuinely surprised.
“Really? I’ve got goosebumps,” he said before adding, “it’s pretty special to win this thing for the third time. To get it from the man himself. … ”
McIlroy has talked about his admiration for Jack in the past.
“He’s always been really generous with his time with me, offered any sort of advice that I wanted or needed. To have that at my disposal has to be an advantage. I don’t ring him up, I ring his secretary up and say, ‘I’d like to schedule a meeting, please.’ I feel very honored that I’m able to call him up for advice if I need to.”
In a recent video tribute, McIlroy said: “I just want to say Happy Birthday. You’ve been an inspiration to me for a long time. You and Barbara have been so good to Erica and I moving to the area and obviously the Bear’s Club. Many happy returns.”
Patty McDonald: More than just golf
McDonald is the president and CEO of the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation. She has worked for the Nicklaus’ since the foundation was established in 2005. She watched the foundation grow from $100,000 in start up money to raising more than $100 million, from a local foundation to one that is global and recently opened the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation of Canada.
The foundation raises money to support access to pediatric health care. In 2015 the Miami Children’s Hospital renamed the flagship hospital Nicklaus Children’s Hospital.
“We all know Jack is the greatest golfer in history, but what people might not know is how much he truly cares about helping children in our own community and around the world,” McDonald said. “He has created relationships with many of the children and families and tears up when he shares their stories of hope and healing.
“Jack and Barbara are committed to continuing to raise money to help children in need. Their passion inspires me to help them raise more funds than we ever thought possible, just like Jack inspires every golfer in the world to do their best — both on and off the course. Making sure every child our foundation impacts gets the care they need is Jack’s true legacy, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Marc Buoniconti: ′Truly the best’
Jack and Barbara started attending the Sports Legends Dinner in New York to raise funds for The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis in 1999. Since, it’s been a staple on their busy calendar.
The dinner was the brainchild of Marc, and his father, the late Nick Buoniconti, to boost proceeds. Jack and Barbara are very involved with The Miami Project. including hosting a benefit golf tournament every year at the Bear’s Club.
“Jack is one of those rare talents that has become a true champion in every aspect of his life,” Marc said. “When we honored him at The Buoniconti Fund’s Great Sports Legends Dinner in 1999, little did we know that would be the beginning of a wonderful friendship. He and Barbara reached out to my father after that event and said they would like to do more to help us find a cure for paralysis and The Buoniconti Fund Celebrity Golf Invitational was born. Going into our 18th year this spring, Jack has helped us raise millions for cutting edge research at the University of Miami’s The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.
“What moves me more than his support is that each year he plays in the tournament and the entire family comes to support us. He is the epitome of a champion and gentleman, not only does he give back, but he has instilled in his family the importance of helping others. At the first tournament years ago, Jack said that one day we would walk up the 18th together at the Bear’s Club. Because of his unwavering support, that day is getting closer to reality not only for me, but for millions worldwide. He is truly the best to every play the game of golf. Happy Birthday my friend.”
Howard Milstein: Focused on others
Milstein, a real estate developer and financier, has been Jack’s business partner since 2007. He is the Nicklaus Companies Executive Chairman and owns several golf related businesses.
“I quickly learned that the laser-like focus Jack had in handling the pressure of tournament golf shows up in everything he does,” he said. “Even when Jack and I play golf together he can recount every shot he made and every shot I made during the round. Jack’s competitive drive is as powerful now as it’s ever been. How many athletes have been the greatest in the history of their sport and go on to achieve greatness in other fields? One springs to mind. Jack is one of the most accomplished golf-course architects ever. He brings creativity, pragmatism and focus to our course-design business. It’s something to see.
“But what ultimately sets Jack apart is his ability to focus on the needs of other people, to empathize with them. Jack and Barbara’s dedication to the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation is inspiring. As a golfer, people used to talk about among other things, Jack’s long driving ability. But from what I have seen, his love of family is the real driving force in his life.”
Rose Garrido: A ‘handshake’ guy
Garrido, the vice-president of Nicklaus Family Office, has worked for the family for 25 years. She handles Jack’s scheduling, travel, correspondence, fan mail, autograph requests, auction requests, among other duties. He calls her his right hand.
“The name Jack Nicklaus is known all over the world, and more important, the reputation that goes with that name is known the world over, even beyond golf,” she said. “What has impressed me most over the years is how Jack values his relationships. He is a ‘handshake’ guy and when he gives his word, he means it. Jack has built his life and his business on integrity and loyalty, and he lives that every single day and in everything he does. Jack is also one of the smartest and sharpest people I have ever met. He runs numbers through his head while the rest of us try to keep up with him on a calculator app, but he always gets to the answer first and his calculations are always spot on.
“It is an incredible honor to play a small role in Jack’s day-to-day life and to also work so closely with Barbara and their entire family. I always say millions of people would love to have my job, and somehow I am one of the lucky few that get to call this ‘work.’”