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Bear in Mind
Michael Bamberger
April 03, 2000
Those closest to Jack Nicklaus expect him to pull off at least one more miracle before he bows out of the majors
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April 03, 2000

Bear In Mind

Those closest to Jack Nicklaus expect him to pull off at least one more miracle before he bows out of the majors

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Jack Nicklaus is not 5'11" anymore. He's two or three inches shorter than that. His left hip is ceramic. His stance, once so broad and sturdy, is narrow now, almost cramped. His trademark tee shot, the soaring fade, has been replaced by a line-drive draw. The distinctive and pointy collars of the golf shirts he wore for years—collars with wingspans, they were—are now soft and round, like everybody else's. NICKLAUS is embroidered on the left sleeve of his shirts, a reference not really to his family name but to the company that makes his clothes and equipment. His golf bag, once adorned with a simple, cursive MACGREGOR, is now festooned with golden bears. Nicklaus, along with the rest of us, has entered the age of the ubiquitous logo. His golf shoes are orthopedic specials, with cushiony soles nearly an inch thick and rubber nubs for spikes. The man is 60 years old. What did you expect, that he could stay young forever?

This is it, the last year of Nicklaus in full swing, the final time, Nicklaus says, he will play the four majors in a single year. He is making his swan song on courses where he has left his mark, on courses that have helped define his career. The first stop, of course, is Augusta National, where he won the Masters on six occasions. The U.S. Open is at Pebble Beach, where Nicklaus won the '61 U.S. Amateur and the '72 U.S. Open. The British Open is at the Old Course, where Nicklaus won in '70 and '78. The PGA Championship is at Valhalla, in Louisville, a course Nicklaus designed. He will do something dramatic this year, orthopedic shoes and all. He will do something dramatic this year because his will and his ability to think are as strong as they have ever been. There are only six people close enough to Nicklaus to make that judgment—Barbara Nicklaus and the five Nicklaus children—and that's their assessment.

"He could win at Augusta," says the oldest of the children, Jack Nicklaus II, who goes by Jackie. "The Masters is the major where he thinks he has his best chance. Who knows that course better than him? He could win at Pebble, because it's a thinking-man's course and he can still think his way around a course as well as anybody. He could win at St. Andrews, because length is not so important there, but you have to know how to play shots, and he does. He's playing, he's practicing, he's working out. When he puts his mind to something, he usually gets things done."

With all due respect to Ben Hogan's secret, the truly great unsolved mystery of golf involves the inner workings of Nicklaus's head. No one has been given real access to his mind, no writer, no psychologist, no trusted insider. It is entirely possible that Nicklaus himself doesn't know how the thing works. He has talked, sparingly, about his ability to go into a cocoon of concentration, and he has said that Hogan and Tiger Woods are the only other players he has seen do something similar, and that's about all he has really said about his head and how it functions. But Barbara and the five children have made a lifelong study of the man, and they know things the rest of us do not. Anyone could say that Nicklaus will do well to make two cuts in the majors this year. There's no sport in that prediction. Of course he's not the golfer he was 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. What's fascinating is to hear the six people in the world closest to Nicklaus say that he can still win, and that is what they all say.

They think he can win because they truly believe what so many say without ever understanding: More than anything, golf is a mind game. "His mind is still unbelievably strong," says Michael Nicklaus, at 26 the youngest of the children. "The other day we were playing a match, and he was lining up a 25-footer and he says, 'Hate to do this to you,' with this little smile on his face. Sure enough, he holes the putt. That's pure will."

You might think the family is living in some sort of time warp, that they think it's 1980 again, the year Nicklaus, at 40, won the U.S. Open and the PGA. They're not. When Nicklaus turned 60 in January, rather than hide, he celebrated with scores of friends and family members in his home in North Palm Beach, Fla. But every 20 minutes or so the birthday boy ducked out of the festivities and into his home office, where he logged on to pgatour.com, clicked on the real-time scores and scrolled through the list to see if his second youngest, Gary, was going to make the cut in the Sony Open, in Hawaii. (He did.) The Golden Bear is plugged in.

The rest know the score, too. Last month Jack and Gary played in the Doral-Ryder Open, and after a long session on the practice tee after the first round, father Nicklaus was hobbling around, his feet stiff and aching. The sight was painful for Gary. "He was hurting that week," Gary says. "Nobody wants to see a parent like that. But he's 60, not 30. He's going to have these aches." This is not a family in denial.

All five children live within a few miles of their parents. Gary, divorced from his first wife and now engaged to Heather McDonough, is 31 and has his Tour card for the first time. Michael, married to the former Traci Vance, works for a dot.com company called Golfport, partially owned by his father. Nancy, the lone girl squashed between two older boys and two younger ones, is 34 and the mother of four boys and a girl, just as her mother is. Nan's husband, Bill O'Leary, works for his father-in-law's course-design company. Steve Nicklaus, 36, married to the former Krista Johnson and the father of an infant boy, is a co-owner of Executive Sports International, an event-management company with offices in the same building as his father's, in Golden Bear Plaza in North Palm Beach. Jack II, 38, a prolific course designer in his father's company, is also married to a Barbara, the former Barbara Gillespie. That couple has five children, too—three boys, two girls. The Nicklaus kids are all grown up. They're adults.

If anybody is in a time warp, it is we, the golf-watching public. The Nicklaus kids, we know them mostly in frozen moments from their towheaded childhoods. Maybe you caught a glimpse of them at an awards ceremony on TV, or in a picture in a magazine, or in a two-paragraph wire story, always connected to one of the majors because that's when they were seen in public. Maybe you remember the '73 PGA at Canterbury, in Cleveland, when Gary, a precocious four-year-old, ran onto the 18th green, not after his father had won the thing, which he eventually did, but while Nicklaus was finishing up his second round. Maybe you remember seven-year-old Michael at the '80 PGA at Oak Hill sticking his head under the Wanamaker Trophy hoisted by his jubilant, youthful-looking parents.

Nicklaus built his schedule around the majors, but the kids did not, except Nan. Every July she would travel with her parents to England or Scotland for the British Open, although not necessarily to the course itself. Her favorite stories from these trips are from off the course. For instance, the '76 Open, which was played at Royal Birkdale in a stifling and aberrant heat. Their hotel, the Prince of Wales in Southport, England, had no air-conditioning and the windows were painted shut. They slept with the door open, but father Nicklaus, worried about nocturnal intruders, expended much effort to build a teetering tower of suitcases that would tumble if a warm body so much as darkened the doorway. He finished in a tie for second. Nan doesn't know where, exactly, she was when her father won on the Old Course in '78, when she was 13. She was somewhere in the vicinity. This year she'll be on the fabled links, following her father. When she was 13, it was just Dad winning again, as he always did. The opportunities are rarer and more precious now.

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