Around Jack Nicklaus these days there is a lot of talk about such thrilling things as "partnership relationships" and "internal use situations" and "investment specialization consultation" and any number of other references that seem to have very little to do with hitting a golf ball. It is all tied together, however. With each divot Nicklaus takes now, a bit of the world economy flutters up also. There is something out there on the horizon that might be called Global Bear Conglomerate Golden Fun, Inc., and do not be surprised some Sunday if it happens to gobble up your foursome.
It was a little over a decade ago that a couple of guys named Arnold Palmer and Mark McCormack wrote the pilot film on how a sports star of immense proportions can become a walking corporation. Over the years other athletes have tried to do the same thing, most of them without gigantic success because, like writers, all they know about commerce is that sometimes it is big, sometimes it is small and frequently it is loaded onto ships and into box cars. Jack Nicklaus is definitely not in this category. He is buying up golf like bologna at the delicatessen.
All this began about four years ago when Nicklaus left McCormack to start up his own business organization. Since then, aside from winning a few major championships, Nicklaus has spent most of his time with an Ohio ex-semimini tycoon, an Indiana ex-banker, a Texas ex-advertising man, an ex-Wall Street lawyer, an ex-London editor and a current Detroit tax adviser. What has emerged is a Jack Nicklaus worth roughly $15 million, give or take a set of MacGregor irons. He has business interests from downtown Columbus to Tochigi, Japan, he can almost say that he runs about a fourth of the tournaments on the PGA circuit, and he does say that he considers it fun to go from the 18th green to an urgent decision involving Golden Bear, Inc., Executive Sports, Golforce, Inc., SportsConcepts, the Jack Nicklaus Corporation of Geneva and London, Asahi Chemical, Golforce Espa√±a, General Motors Overseas Operations. And on and on, into the night, all the while gracing the ads and images of Hart Schaffner & Marx, Hathaway shirts, Eastern Air Lines, Bostonian shoes, Pontiac, Coca-Cola and Brunswick.
Last week was a splendid occasion to ponder this high finance, for Nicklaus found himself in a unique situation. Out in southwest Ohio, halfway between somewhere and nowhere, Nicklaus was winning a thing called the Ohio Kings Island Open, an event he got placed on the circuit, run by his people, on a course that he designed and that he owns.
Specifically, the situation is that Nicklaus helped design the course with his former associate, Desmond Muirhead; he owns 35% of the land and owns 24% of John Montgomery's Executive Sports, which not only ran this tournament but also runs 11 others—the Canadian Open, Atlanta, Doral, Jacksonville, Gleason, Southern, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Orlando, Sutton and Tallahassee.
Wait a minute. Does this mean that Jack Nicklaus, in a sense, actually controls the destiny of one-fourth of the tournaments? That he is getting paid to run tournaments that put up prize money for him to win? And is there something wrong with that?
"Obviously I asked [Tour Commissioner] Joe Dey about it before we did it," Jack explained. "His opinion was that there not only wasn't anything wrong with it, he was delighted. He said it seemed to him to be the natural extension of a player's involvement in the game."
The next thing that comes to mind is why wouldn't Nicklaus be sure to compete in all of his own tournaments? Better for business all the way around.
"John Montgomery would like that," Jack said. "This year I played in five out of the 12. That's hardly what you'd call conflict of interest."
Nicklaus also chose last week to set the record straight on a rumor lurking in all of the PGA bunkers that, along with everything else, he is buying up the other good talent on the tour. The word was that Tom Weiskopf and Ben Crenshaw had "signed with Nicklaus."
Not true really. Weiskopf and Crenshaw have only been signed by Jack's partner, Putnam Pierman, the man who has primarily built the empire. Pierman, a 38-year-old Columbus businessman, has difficulty describing his role in the business complex. He is Jack's partner and close buddy—but what else?
David Sherman, the ex-Wall Street lawyer, says with affection that Pierman is "in charge of thinking big." Ken Bow-den, the ex-London editor who jokes that his own role is to draw up ways to turn "internal use situations" into something "external," says Pierman is a "genius conceptionalist, if that's a word." Bill Sansing, the ex-advertising guy from Texas, says Pierman is a "partnership relationship input specialist." Tom Peterson, the ex-Indiana banker who has been running Golden Bear, Inc., says Pierman is "a lot of trouble, most of the time." And Jerry Halperin, the present Detroit tax adviser, does not say anything. He is usually locked in a closet dwelling on foundations and "accountable opportunities tax-wise," meaning shelters. Anyhow, Weiskopf and Crenshaw belong to Nicklaus' "people," not Jack personally.
"It isn't a sensitive subject with me," said Nicklaus. "It's something Put is doing on his own. If Tom or Ben want my advice, I'll give it, like a friend. But I'll never make one nickel from anything they do. The beauty of our setup is these guys can work for me, with me, or on their own. And our deals are mostly long term, and good for both sides."
Although Jack's pals or associates throw around a lot of commerce talk and although they obviously know what they all are doing, they are rowdily different from the other agents or managers one sees around with briefcases, darting for planes. The "Nicklaus Mafia," as the group is being called, is decidedly in favor of combining fun with business.
At the Ohio Kings Island Open, for example, it was hard to miss them, whether you were wandering around the Kings Island Inn, where their hospitality suite was the best bar in the neighborhood, or at the International restaurant in the nearby Disney-type park that overlooks a fake Eiffel Tower and a boulevard of water fountains.
One evening the Nicklaus Mafia entertained Johnny Bench with a delectable ex-Miss Kansas, plus some assorted attorneys and gentlemen of letters. Jack kept busy drawing on scraps of paper great golf holes he has designed in Japan, Spain, Florida and Ohio. And pouring wine. More wine.
"I'm about 15 years old when it comes to business," Jack said. "But Pierman is giving me a college education."
"Wrong," said Pierman. "You're 12."
On another evening the guest of honor was somebody named Zenya Hamada, a Japanese gentleman who enjoys giving away money. He has given Jack a considerable amount of it for designing two 36-hole courses in Japan. Hamada wanted one 18 to be a close replica of the Old Course at St. Andrews, and Jack has tried. Hamada was so grateful that Jack agreed to simply sort of copy the Old Course design that he gave Nicklaus a diamond wristwatch, on top of all the money, and he went to Scotland and gave the township of St. Andrews $250,000 it did not ask for.
"Jack Nicklaus chairman of club," said Hamada, with the Eiffel Tower out of the window—in Ohio. "St. Andrews also chairman of club."
And now Hamada had brought another present. Into the restaurant came a huge box. Out of the box came a 300-year-old Samurai outfit, worth about $20,000. People began fitting it on a bewildered busboy. A gift for Jack. Somebody suggested that if Jack did not know what to do with it, he could give it to anyone in his organization interested in scuba diving.
Jack broke up.
"Somebody make joke," David Sherman told Hamada.
Finally, in response to the gift, Putnam Pierman, the genius conceptionalist, took over. He stood up. He took off his coat. He took off his tie. He then took off his shirt. He hugged Hamada.
"Nicklaus gives you shirt off back," said Pierman.
"See how much fun we have?" said Nicklaus on the side. "Sit down, Put."
So it went in professional golf last week. So it went in big business.