For years, numbers have always shadowed Jack Nicklaus and provided quick reminders to his greatness between the gallery ropes.
Six green jackets, 18 major championships, 19 runner-up finishes in the game’s four most prestigious events. Those digits are all records, monumental punctuation marks to a career well played.
They are bench marks for those who try to follow in his footsteps, for the Golden Bear has been the gold standard in golf’s record books for decades. Along with the 18 utopian major titles he’s been tracking for years, one other number always jumped out for Tiger Woods – Nicklaus’ record 73 top-10 finishes in majors. Tom Watson and Sam Snead are next with 46, the same number of top-3 finishes Nicklaus accumulated in majors. Also, 73 is the number of PGA Tour titles Nicklaus amassed, third all time.
One could go on and on and on.
But for Nicklaus, who turns 80 on Tuesday, two numbers rank ahead of all others, the ones that stand atop his numerical mountain. Those would be 5 and 22 – the number of his children and grandchildren.
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Along with Barbara, his wife of 59 years, Nicklaus counts Jack II, Steve, Nancy, Gary and Michael, and their double-digits of children, his greatest triumphs. Majors are great, but family has always been the most important club in his bag.
They have been his voice, his guiding light, his inspiration, his source to move forward and continue to accumulate more numbers.
Jack Nicklaus helps his his grandson, Nick O'Leary, line up a putt on No 9 during the Par 3 Contest. Michael Madrid, USA TODAY (Photo: Michael Madrid, USAT)
Add wingman to that list. Who can forget Jack II carrying the clubs when Nicklaus bagged his sixth green jacket in 1986 at age 46, the two hugging just off the 18th green, the perfect cap to the Golden Bear’s back-nine blitz of par?
Thirteen years earlier, a similar portrait emerged when Gary, then 4, raced onto the 18th green at the end of the second round of the 1973 PGA Championship at Canterbury Golf Club in Cleveland. Nicklaus scooped up his toddler and walked off the green with his putter in his left hand and Gary in his right arm, the image captured forever by a nearby photographer.
“It’s my favorite picture ever,” said Nicklaus, who won his 12th major that week.
Thankfully, there are no pictures of Nicklaus when his children were born, for he fainted at each of their births, one time needing more time in the recovery room than his wife, which she jokes about to this day.
And out of the mouths of babes came good sense as his children gave their dad a wake-up call when he was 35. Nicklaus took up skiing that year and was thinking it was about time to quit playing golf.
“We were out there skiing and I was talking about not playing much golf the next year and all the kids said, ‘What are you doing? You can still beat everybody out there. You need to keep playing. You’ll love it,’” Nicklaus said in a call with reporters the week before his 80th. “I said, ‘Yeah, I do, but I want to be a part of your life and grow up with you and watch what you do. I’m not too concerned about myself.’ They talked me into going back and playing. So I won four more majors and a few more tournaments and had a great time.”
Good thing he listened. And anyway, Nicklaus did grow up with his children and was a part of their lives. Despite the travel demands of the professional game and his business interests, Nicklaus made it a point to never be away from the family for more than two weeks at a time. His family was more important than his golf, he has said many times, and that, in turn, made him a better golfer.
Now Nicklaus’ travels include his grandchildren’s events, including frequent visits to watch his grandson, NFL tight end Nick O’Leary, play.
As years passed, Nicklaus came to adopt other kids. Call many of them his Bear’s Club Boys, the 30 or so pros who live at or near his gem of a club in Florida who seek his wisdom and company.
Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy among them. Others have scheduled visits, including Dustin Johnson. On the other end of his phone have been Patrick Cantlay, Trevor Immelman, Charl Schwartzel. And so many others. Nicklaus is always on call, ready to dispense his valuable info and share a few laughs.
“I don’t go out and seek this. But I’m always available,” he said. “I’ve always felt like, if I have some knowledge, or you might call it wisdom, I don’t know if it is or not, to depart to the kids, I’m delighted to do it. It’s very flattering to me. And I enjoy it.”
Other kids mean just as much. The ones battling cancer and other threatening diseases attacking their bodies. While he continues to build golf courses, host his Memorial Tournament and play golf from time to time, he’s now his wife’s wingman in raising money for those in need.
In 2004, the two established the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, which has raised more than $100 million and established 14 Nicklaus Children’s Outpatient Centers. His Memorial Tournament has raised more than $35 million of additional money for charity, the majority going to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital. His presence in hundreds of other charitable tournaments has helped raise millions more.
“Helping a little kid is far more important than a 4-foot putt,” Nicklaus said when he and Barbara announced in 2019 their latest involvement in a charitable drive that will involve the global golf community. Called Play Yellow, the campaign hopes to raise $100 million for children’s hospitals. Play Yellow comes from the yellow golf shirts Nicklaus often wore in the final round of tournaments to honor Craig Smith, the son of a close family friend who was battling a rare bone cancer. Smith died in 1971 at the age of 13.
“We’re just getting started,” Nicklaus said. “Barbara has been so great at what she’s done at the foundation. It’s changed my life. I said many times, ‘You supported me for 50 years, now it’s time for me to support you.’ And that’s what I’ve been doing. I enjoy it. It’s been a blast.”
Yes, Nicklaus played golf for himself and busted his butt to win. But true to his heart, others have always meant the most to him.
G.T. Nicklaus, the grandson of Jack Nicklaus, holds up the ball after making a hole-in-one on the 9th hole during the Par 3 Contest before the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. (Photo: Rob Schumacher, Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)
Which was evident April 4, 2018. He was playing the Par-3 contest at the Masters. Alongside fellow green jacket winners Tom Watson and Gary Player, Nicklaus was strolling around the short course with GT, one of his 22 grandchildren who was 15 and wearing the white caddie overalls and the green cap.
They arrived at the eighth tee, 112 yards in front of them to the hole. Then GT took a swing. Then the ball disappeared into the hole.
Nicklaus was 75 before making an ace at Augusta National. His grandson needed one swing. With tears streaming down his face, Nicklaus left the tee box.
“I didn’t want to be disrespectful because six green jackets is pretty good,” he said the next day after participating in the ceremonial tee shots. “But that’s about yourself. When something happens with your children or your grandchildren, that’s far more special to you. And so yesterday, I said, was the greatest day I’ve had at Augusta National.”
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