'Golden Bear' Jack Nicklaus is cultivating an empire built on golf
This story appeared in the Sept. 22, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Jack Nicklaus’s office, on the fifth floor of one of the sleek buildings that make up the Golden Bear Plaza in Jupiter, Fla., is brimming with evidence of a life well-lived. The space is stuffed with hunting and fishing trophies, including the mounts of three marlin, one of them a 726-pounder that Nicklaus landed in 1975.
Mostly, though, his office is cluttered with family photos, in which his college sweetheart turned wife of 54 years, Barbara, is always by his side. One group shot brings together their five children and 22 grandchildren, who have grown to expect that their famous grandpa will be on the sideline for all of their sporting events. The head shot of a little boy cut into the shape of a heart has been glued to the picture. This is the Nicklauses’ grandson Jake, who drowned nine years ago at 17 months old. Jack hosts an annual tournament in his honor, The Jake. This year’s raised $2.2 million for the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation and featured a Who’s Who of today’s pros.
Peering out the window, Nicklaus points out Lost Tree Golf Club, where he and Barbara have for decades lived in the same nice-but-hardly ostentatious house. Over yonder is the Miami Children’s Hospital Nicklaus Outpatient Center, which his foundation has funded. Family, philanthropy, the great outdoors -- Nicklaus’s passions have been brought together in this one room. But what brings this 74-year-old into the office nearly every day (admittedly, often in shorts and boat shoes) is another driving force in his life: a burgeoning business empire. “I have no desire to retire,” says Nicklaus. “I’d retire to this because I enjoy it so much.”
The Nicklaus Companies is the umbrella corporation for all of the Golden Bear’s business initiatives, though for most of the past four decades golf-course architecture was the primary product. Nicklaus Design has built some 380 courses in 38 countries, 290 of them Signature courses, which means they were dreamed up by the patriarch himself. The current fee for such a design can be upward of $2 million. While his great friend and rival Arnold Palmer was flooding the marketplace with products featuring his imprimatur, Nicklaus preferred to dig around in the dirt, blending art and science to create his courses. “You can’t believe how many deals Jack turned down through the years,” says Andy O’Brien, a senior vice president at the Nicklaus Companies. “It usually came back to that he preferred to build courses over everything else.”
All that changed when the economy tanked in 2008 and golf-course construction ground to a halt. “I had to think about what else I was going to do to grow the company,” says Nicklaus. Thus in the last six years Nicklaus has licensed his likeness to a dizzying number of products. The distinctive Golden Bear logo can now cover consumers from head to toe: hats (through a partnership with Ahead), clothing (Perry Ellis International), sunglasses (PeakVision) and shoes (Allen Edmonds). Fans can start their day drinking Nicklaus water (Aquahydrate), down a Golden Bear Lemonade (Arizona) at lunch, wash down dinner with a $60 Nicklaus cabernet (Terlato) and sign the American Express bill—Jack can say, “Don’t leave home without it,” in Japanese -- with a Nicklaus pen (Curtis).
This is possible because Nicklaus built brand equity by winning a record 18 major championships and by being a paragon of class and sportsmanship. “He’s led an exemplary life,” says George Feldenkreis, the chairman and CEO of Perry Ellis International. “He has achieved great things, but he’s devoted himself to giving back. Jack Nicklaus is an emblem of the America that I admired as a boy
Nicklaus teamed up with Perry Ellis in 2013. Feldenkreis says he felt “awed” to meet the great man but was disarmed by the Golden Bear’s folksy introduction: “Hi, I’m Jack.” (He’s also known to employ a charming wink.) The son of a pharmacist in Columbus, Ohio, Nicklaus brings an unpretentious, Midwestern sensibility to the negotiating table. “He never talked about money,” says Feldenkreis. “He cared about two things: The first was that the product be affordable to the average American, not just the shopper at Neiman Marcus. And he cared deeply about the quality and integrity. I was surprised how involved he was with the details of the fabrics and fit.”
The Nicklaus apparel business generates more than $250 million annually in sales worldwide. Feldenkreis is pleased by the sales, but what seems to mean more to him is his bond with Nicklaus: “Our first time meeting he asked me many questions about myself -- about life in Cuba, about the politics there, about how I came to this country. I was very taken by that.”
This personal touch underpins all of Nicklaus’s business relationships. The Nicklaus wines were born through sociable chitchat with Bill Terlato, who has a home at the Bear’s Club, the swank private enclave Nicklaus developed in Jupiter. (Michael Jordan built a cozy 37,000-square-foot cottage there.) “Jack likes to do business with friends,” says Terlato, CEO of his family wine company. “It creates a tremendous loyalty -- you want to do right by Jack. I’m concerned about his reputation as much as my own.”
The wines have sold around 10,000 cases annually since 2010, but Forbes pegs Nicklaus’s net worth at more than $250 million, and the wine deal is not going to change his life from a financial standpoint. So why do it? “Because it’s fun to walk into a restaurant and order your own wine!”
Similarly, this connoisseur of butter pecan is working on an ice-cream deal. Nicklaus is also a noted dog lover whose pal Gerald Ford once gifted him a puppy from Liberty, the golden retriever who famously lolled around in the Oval Office. So it’s no surprise that the Golden Bear has an endorsement deal with VetIQ, a provider of pet medication and supplements. “Jack is a man of many interests,” says Terlato. “The things he comes across in daily life and his career often intersect with his passions. When he believes in something, he’s not shy about it.”
And Nicklaus has too much authenticity to even try to fake it. O’Brien still laments a blockbuster deal that his boss squashed for a popular anti-inflammatory medicine because Nicklaus found it made him dizzy. “Jack said, ‘If I’m not taking it every day, how can I tell people to take it every day?’” says O’Brien. “It took seven months to put that deal together, but it disappeared just like that. And yet you can’t argue the logic.”
In the last year Nicklaus has become a player in the golf ball market largely because he was offended by how confusing it has become for consumers to figure out which rock to use. Instead of a string of letters and numbers, the Nicklaus balls are named Black, Blue and White, to correspond to the color of the tee markers at most courses. If you play the tips -- that is, the black tees -- you almost surely have the higher swing speed the Black ball is designed for. “Simple, right?” says Nicklaus.
Still, the product that he remains most passionate about is course design, and business is picking up. Having opened an office in Hong Kong a quarter century ago, he was well-positioned to become the dominant force in China as the country has seen a building boom in recent years. Nicklaus Design now has 26 courses open and 18 more under development. In keeping with the new business model, a smaller percentage are Signature designs as the patriarch tries harder to sell the company’s services and not just himself. (Jack’s son Jackie is the president of Nicklaus Design, and numerous family members work in different capacities across the family enterprises, including a grandson who works in the bag room at the Bear’s Club.)
Nicklaus makes three trips a year to China in his Gulfstream IV‑SP, part of a grueling schedule. Not long ago he did eight events in three days across three states, never going to bed before 1 a.m., and leaving much younger staffers in his wake. “But you can’t complain because he never does,” says Scott Tolley, vice president of corporate communications.
Nicklaus’s empire building may show no signs of slowing, but the man himself does occasionally pause to reflect. He has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and appeared on a five-pound note in Scotland. His courses have brought joy (and some suffering) to countless golfers, and through his vast philanthropic works he is bettering the lives of children across Florida and Ohio. “All of this because I could hit a golf ball,” he muses. Of course, it’s so much more than that, but Nicklaus still wants to finish the thought. “Isn’t that ridiculous? It’s ridiculous, and it’s wonderful."