SI Vault
John Underwood
February 19, 1973
For a decade Jack Nicklaus lost fans to fat and Arnold Palmer. Despite his extraordinary record, he was the spoiler. But now that he has become golf's leading man, life is fun (and family games)
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February 19, 1973

A Heavy Comes To Light

For a decade Jack Nicklaus lost fans to fat and Arnold Palmer. Despite his extraordinary record, he was the spoiler. But now that he has become golf's leading man, life is fun (and family games)

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More interesting is that a picture of the person finally emerged, like an underexposed photograph slowly making its way up through the layers of emulsion. Nicklaus now appears not Fat Jack in fuzzy outline but Trimly Defined Jack in a Hart Schaffner & Marx double-knit blazer, leaning against a Pontiac Grand Prix across a double-truck magazine advertisement. Long filaments of white-blond hair sweep his square, tanned forehead. His small (but clear and fiery) blue eyes smile handsomely. Indeed he has become handsome, after a slow start.

Moreover, he is revealed to be a man of many dimensions. A budding genius as a golf-course architect. A shrewd (but eminently fair) businessman. A can't-stand-to-lose (but eminently sportsmanlike) participant in basketball games and tennis matches at his home courts. A devoted father who, after the U.S. Open, traveled all night to attend his son Stevie's Little League championship game, then stood 45 minutes under a leaking overhang waiting for the game to begin. A friend who stood with him said Jack didn't once mention the Open.

He has become, at last, a hero of epic dimensions, drawing affectionate galleries everywhere. They reach out for him, talk with him, laugh at his jokes. His response is easy and natural, for it is not in him to overdo. Chi Chi Rodriguez believes Jack would have had the world at his feet long ago had he "given himself to the fans the way Arnold did. But he gave himself to his family, to his golf. He is his own man."

In the final round of the last British Open, when Nicklaus was going for what golf people call the Grand Slam—he had won the Masters and the U.S. Open, and the PGA was still to come—he put together a breathtaking cluster of shots in a vain charge at the leading Lee Trevino. Six strokes down, he rallied to take, for a brief time, the lead. When he birdied the 10th hole there began in that huge crowd at Muirfield an unusual applause, not the shrill beseeching after a touchdown pass or a World Series home run, but a steady, rhythmic tumult that swelled as Nicklaus walked from the green, and then renewed itself, like a hurricane that has passed over a peninsula into open water, after he hit his drive on the 11th. It was the pure and thoughtful clamor of an audience acknowledging greatness, and Nicklaus, like a leaf on a river, was carried by it down the fairway. He said later it was the greatest feeling he ever experienced on a golf course. His wife said if you had looked closely you would have seen that he was crying.

Barbara Nicklaus, standing barefoot in the kitchen, lay strips of mozzarella over thin slabs of veal in an aluminum pan. "I tell the kids, 'Put your shoes on,' " she said. "They look at me." She raised her eyebrows and the side of her mouth and her gray-green eyes rounded to express the helplessness of her role as an example-setter for tiny nasal passages and chest cavities. Her blonde hair came in an avalanche over her shoulders and was mussed in front. She stuck out her lower lip and blew up at it, looking cross-eyed as it fluttered down, letting the strands fall where they might.

In such a woman there is an unclassifiable appeal (fetching might be a worthwhile category, if a mother of four would sit still for it), but whatever the context you would be accurate to say she is pretty, and be reasonably certain she would not be bothered if you didn't. Thirtyish now, with the sturdy hold of the Midwest still on her, as it is on her husband, she has passed up every chance to become a snob.

Through the kitchen window she could see Jack on the grass tennis court in the Nicklaus side yard, making final preparations for a match with three of his friends, opening fresh cans of fluorescent yellow balls, passing towels around. The grass (Tifton 419) is carefully maintained for the Nicklauses by an old family friend and semi-retired golf-course manager named Sockeye Davis. Sockeye was standing near the court, presumably keeping an eye out for rough spots. Barbara said Sockeye was in her doghouse because he had failed to spot a newspaper's account of her club team's losing effort in its latest match. For the record, she said, "I am 13th on a 12-girl tennis team. But it beats golf." She said she had launched into golf years ago by shooting 157. "I worked my way down to where I could shoot 125, then decided that's it. I've mastered the game."

The grass court makes a nice conversation piece, but in actuality the entire yard is Tifton 419. Jack wasn't sure his interest in tennis would last. Better to blot out a few lines than rip up a lot of asphalt. He since has found tennis a worthy recreation, and in a short while has developed a respectable game—a strong serve and some relentless forehand ground strokes to compensate for an untrustworthy backhand. He plays it as he does one-on-one basketball matches on the garage court, to the hilt.

The game was soon enlivened by a number of bizarre shots that green vinyl screens at the ends of the court kept from going into the hedge out front, or down the long slope into the waters of Lake Worth at the back. The game was interrupted occasionally by a football bouncing into the court. Two lean, blond cool-eyed boys, Jackie Nicklaus, age 11, and Stevie, nine, were practicing their pass patterns with a neighbor. Jack warned them a couple of times about staying in their own territory.

Nicklaus' 1�-acre Florida spread is second in from the guardhouse gate of an enclave of waterfront and golf-course-facing estates known as Lost Tree Village. Cary Middlecoff and Perry Como are neighbors. The sprawling house is a pleasing coalition of native cypress and quartz-flecked glacier stone shipped in from California. The patio is veneered in Astro Turf, on which Deane Beman has been known to give Nicklaus midnight putting lessons. When it is not in the shop having its bottom groomed, the 37-foot wooden-hulled Golden Bear, a fishing boat with the range to make it easily to Jack's retreat at Great Harbour Cay in the Bahamas, is tied up at the dock.

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