On the practice tee, Gary Nicklaus's blond hair shimmers in the Florida sun. "You're hitting it better, aren't you?" Johnny Miller says. Miller was a golden boy once; he even threatened to take the torch away from Jack Nicklaus. Gary swings, and the result is that satisfying "crack" that foretells an excellent golf shot. Gary looks up to see the ball hang against a blue sky. Maybe it's true what people are saying: The kid can inherit the old man's business.
"Yeah," says Miller, "I like that."
Twenty yards behind them, a gaggle of fans discuss the proceedings. Up and down the practice tee at Boca West, one of those exclusive gatehouse communities in Boca Raton, Fla. where even litter has been planned out of existence, a number of notable pro golfers are working on their games this December day: Greg Norman, Lanny Wadkins, Andy Bean. But most of the attention is directed toward 16-year-old Gary. Of course, it helps that boss Nicklaus, Gary's dad, is hitting shots alongside him.
Miller begins showing Gary some technical aspect of the swing. Golfers, no matter how good, never seem able to get it just right. Jack, who has been feigning a lack of interest, straightens up. "What's that?" he asks. Uh-oh, people think. Miller explains his theory, obviously not wanting the king to think there's an intruder in his domain. Miller repeats what he has said about Gary striking the ball better.
March 11, 1985
"Considering he hasn't played a thimbleful the last few months, he's doing O.K.," Jack says. Everyone exhales.
Without question, Jack has invested a lot of effort, energy and hope in Gary's game. He talks more about Gary's swing than he does about his own these days. Several years ago, Jack predicted that Gary would win more major championships than he had. Loose lips? Jack won't retreat. "That's being supportive of your kids," he says. "I don't know what he's going to do. If he wants to be good, he certainly can be. He has the tools."
The tools include a good helping of the athleticism that runs through the Nicklaus bloodline. Michael, 11, the youngest of the five children, is a promising tennis player. Nan, 19, is attending Georgia on a volleyball scholarship. Jackie, 23, and Steve, 21, were both Class A all-state football players at the Benjamin School, a private school of 268 students not far from the Nicklaus home in North Palm Beach, Fla. Jackie is now a senior on the North Carolina golf team. On Friday he shot a 65 for the Tar Heels in the second round of a 21-team event in Lakeland, Fla. to lead Carolina to the championship. Steve just finished his junior season as a backup wide receiver at Florida State. Gary, who's a sophomore at Benjamin, started at linebacker for the varsity as a ninth-grader. A shoulder injury sidelined him all of last year, but he did average 7.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game for Benjamin's junior varsity basketball team, which has just completed its season. He has been on the varsity golf team since the seventh grade.
At 5'9", 160 pounds, and blessed with "quick legs" (the ability to move the lower body out of the way quickly during a swing), Gary already hits the ball farther than his father does. And he's a good chipper and putter, too. Getting outdriven by Gary, whom his Benjamin teammates call the Gorilla, makes Jack glow with pride. When Jack was 16, he was so long off the tee that other kids on the course would ask, "Where'd Nicklaus hit it on this hole?"
"Now I say it," says Jack with a laugh. "Where'd Nicklaus hit it? Of course, I mean Gary."
Naturally, when Gary and Jack play an informal round, it creates a stir. A crowd will gather. Gary will blast one. Jack will turn to the stunned onlookers and say, "See what I have to put up with? I have to hit first on every fairway."
"We remember when the other guys hit first, Jack," a fan will call.
"So do I," Nicklaus will say.
In some ways Gary faces a tougher course than do other boys with similar ability. Golfing talent doesn't seem to travel well from generation to generation. Gary Player pointed his son Wayne toward golf. Wayne quit school at 15 to play full-time, but now, half a dozen years later, he has disappeared into the abyss that swallows up almost-golfers. When asked last year why South Africa hasn't produced more talented golfers, Player blamed a lack of dedication and mentioned Wayne as an offender.
Gary Nicklaus is looking at a long apprenticeship. Prodigies don't exist in golf. Unlike in tennis, say, in golf you won't find can't-miss teenagers breathing down the necks of the sport's immortals. Seve Ballesteros, now 27, was the closest thing to a phenom since Jack Nicklaus. Arnold Palmer won his first major championship at age 28. Ben Hogan didn't win one until he was 34. Player was 25, Tom Watson 27. It helps to be able to shrug off the bogeys and plow on, but the route is much more difficult when the youngster's toy box is already filled.
Says Jack, "My kids have a tough way to go. They're given a lot, and that's not always the best way. But it's hard for me not to do that. Still, I don't want to spoil their lives with money." However, he did give Gary a new, fully equipped black Trans Am for his 16th birthday.
Gary's progress in golf has been slowed somewhat by several football injuries. Two years ago he had an operation to repair a tendon in his right hand, and last August a dislocated shoulder required surgery. "He wants to play football," says Jack with a shrug. "I'm not going to tell him not to play. He has to make his own decisions. I've concluded that the more I push Gary toward golf, the worse it will be."
Another legend in golf, Bobby Jones, had a son, Bobby Jones III, who also played the game. Coincidentally, Nicklaus faced young Jones in the match-play U.S. Amateur in 1959 in Colorado Springs. Young Bobby called his father back in Georgia to ask if he would be attending the match. The elder Jones asked the name of his son's opponent. Told it was Jack Nicklaus, he replied, "I'm not coming all the way out there to see you play 12 holes."
"That's exactly what we played," Nicklaus recalls. "I beat him 7 and 6."
In light of how consumed Nicklaus has always been with excellence, one might expect his children to be burdened by trying to live up to their father. But almost the opposite is true. Just as Jack is his kids' biggest fan, so are they his. "He's not the Great Santini," says Steve, referring to the Marine colonel in the movie of the same name who ruled his home as if it were his platoon.
Jackie did find the Nicklaus name onerous as a youngster. "Gary's handled it a lot better than I did," he says. "I used to get all nervous at tournaments. Gary's a ham. He gets a gallery and cameras in front of him, he starts playing great. He loves it."
Gary has the same oaken legs and muscular forearms covered with fine white hair that his father has. He has no trouble filling the old man's shoes, either. They wear the same size, 9½. One noticeable difference between them is that Gary, like most kids, switches putters regularly. Jack has used the same flange blade for 25 years.
In 1982, Gary, then 13, was the youngest player to qualify for the USG A junior championship. He lost 2 and 1 to the eventual winner. The same year he won the 12-to 13-year-old title at the International Pee-Wee championships in Orlando, shooting a 66 on the final day. In practice, he has shot several more rounds in the 60s, and his low score for nine holes is 30. He says he's ready to settle down and work on his game, putting his love for skin diving, fishing and water skiing on the shelf. "We'll have to see about football and basketball," he says.
Gary's tutor is Phil Rodgers, the former touring pro and an old Nicklaus family friend, who flies in from La Jolla, Calif. when Gary needs help. "Jack leaves the golf between Gary and me," says Rodgers. "He comes out and watches but doesn't say anything. I think that's how Gary wants it.
"Right now, Gary is just beginning to understand what the game's all about. Whether he becomes a professional or not, I don't know. The idea is for him to have fun and to go to college. It's tough to be a Nicklaus. When your father is the best in the world for 20 or 25 years, that's not an easy act to follow. But he can be good. Nobody can say whether he'll be No. 1. He's strong. He's got a good mind. Like any young kid, he doesn't have a tremendous amount of patience, but he has much more than others his age."
Gary is already considered to be one of the best athletes ever to attend Benjamin. His junior high football coach, Ron Ream, a man who occasionally wears a sweater with a Golden Bear insignia, "built the offense around him." Gary played quarterback and set a school single-season record with 14 rushing touchdowns. "Gary's a great kid to coach," says Ream. "Whatever you ask him to do, he'll do."
In the eighth grade, after not touching a club for 2½ months, Gary entered the 18-hole county junior high golf tournament. He set an event record with a 71. Jody Berklich, now a senior on the Benjamin golf team, calls Gary's juggling of sports amazing. "He comes out after football and basketball, and he gives us a challenge right away," says Jody. "You need great feel to do that."
One of the more visible—and vocal—supporters of the Benjamin athletic program is Jack Nicklaus. In fact, he hosts an annual golf tournament that raises an average of $25,000 for the school. Steve, who has an impish sense of humor, laughs when asked if his father ever met an umpire or a referee he trusted. "When we played, he was the worst," says Steve. "He used to really yell about the calls. He was always into it."
Jack uses the pronoun "we" when discussing Benjamin's athletic fortunes, as in "We won a football game last night." When the older Nicklaus sons played basketball, Barbara, their mom, kept the stats at the scorers' table. Jack would sit with Lee Neal, the wife of the team's coach, Mickey. "He probably was on his feet as much as anyone," Barbara says.
She and Jack will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary on July 23. They met during their first weekend as freshmen at Ohio State. The next year they got pinned the night Jack returned from the Walker Cup matches. Two summers later, they were married during the week of the PGA Championship, a tournament for which Jack, not yet a pro, was ineligible. They honeymooned in the East so Jack could play golf at Pine Valley—where Barbara observed the club's no-women-allowed policy by watching him play from outside the fences in a car—and at Winged Foot.
Over the years, Jack has never needed a caddie to help him with his family duties. "He made a vow when he turned pro that he would never be gone more than two weeks at a time, and he's broken it once in 23 years," says Barbara. "We went to South Africa one time for 17 days to visit the Players. That was it. Jack said to me years ago, 'I refuse to let my kids go to college and say, "Gee, I wish I could have known my dad." '
"He's flown across the country for Little League games. He's been there. And they really appreciate it. They've got a good rapport with him. And because we were married so young, we kind of feel like we've grown up with the kids, and that's been fun, too."
The Nicklaus household operates on a high degree of energy and a loose set of rules. It's the ultimate country club. The garage is crammed with weightlifting equipment, cartons of golf balls, tennis rackets, hoppers of tennis balls, golf clubs and other assorted sporting equipment. Outside are a basketball half court, two grass tennis courts, a putting green with a sand bunker, several boats tied up at the family dock, a swimming pool and a Ping-Pong table. The walls inside feature scores of mounted fish, including, over the mantle, a monster marlin that was caught by Jack. There's perpetual activity, and visitors come and go. "It's like a Mobil seven-star hotel," says Rodgers. "When you go to the Nicklauses for dinner, you don't know whether one or 50 will be there."
Rodgers is 46 and a bachelor. Barbara keeps telling him she's going to find him a good woman. Rodgers calls her "Mom." He says, "I have to report in to Mom now and then."
Jack harbors the same hopes for Gary that Jack's father, Charlie, a pharmacist who owned three drugstores in Columbus, Ohio, did for him. Watched over by Charlie, Jack played junior high football and baseball, ran the dashes and high-jumped in high school and was a good enough basketball player to be invited out for the Ohio State NCAA championship team that included Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Bob Knight. But golf, obviously, was his strength. At 13, he had a plus-three (three better than par) handicap. One day a teacher announced to his eighth-grade class, "Congratulations, Mr. Nicklaus. The newspaper today said you have the lowest handicap in the Columbus district." Despite his remarkable talent and potential, Jack failed to win the U.S. junior championship in five attempts.
"I did a lot of things because of my father," Jack says. "He was not only my greatest supporter, but he was also my best friend." Charlie would drive young Jack to junior tournaments all over the country. That gave them time to talk.
"The time I spent with my father was important," says Jack. "I try to do the same with my kids, to introduce them to sports and let them take it from there. Sports are so great. They teach you to get along with other people. Win or lose, they're a great lesson in life. And golf is probably the toughest because you're on your own."
"Jack is thrilled these days," says Barbara, "because when the kids come home, they goad him to get out on the golf course with them." At 45, when Jack should be in serious decline, playing with his children has probably increased his appetite for the game. "When I'm home, they will not let me not play," he says.
Jack credits Barbara for the way the kids have turned out. She runs the house. He takes care of the golf. This division of labor has worked pretty well. Recently a photographer wanted to set up lights to take pictures of Gary in action at a Benjamin J.V. basketball game. Barbara blocked the idea. "That's just more pressure," she said.
A common expression in golf is "Don't force it." The idea is to let things happen naturally, from your swing to your career. Don't press. Jack and Barbara don't want Gary to force it. Nonetheless, he broke 80 at 11. At 13, as the youngest player ever in a Palm Beach County men's tournament, he tied for the title in the first flight, beating his brother Jackie, who was already on scholarship at North Carolina, by 24 strokes.
Palm Beach County has an intense junior program. Two hundred eighty-one kids are enrolled in it, and 18 of them have handicaps of two or better. Last year the association president, Lynn Taliaferro, saw a competitor make an illegal drop in a tournament. She pointed out the infraction to Gary. "It's up to you to protect the field," Taliaferro said. Doing his duty, Gary called a penalty on the player. A heated discussion followed. "The other boy was arguing," recalls Taliaferro. "Gary glanced over at me and gave me this look—a what'd-you-get-me-into look. He's such a nice, unassuming kid. I just adore him. Am I a fan? You bet. I'm so proud he can handle what he has to handle."
Jack attends most of Gary's tournaments, but he no longer caddies for his son. A few years ago, when Jack was toting Gary's bag, an embarrassing moment occurred when it was discovered that Gary had more than the regulation 14 clubs in his bag. Part of a caddie's job, of course, is to prevent such a snafu. The result was that Gary was penalized two strokes.
Last year father and son experienced an epic moment. Gary beat his old man for the first time. He birdied the last three holes for a 33 in a nine-hole match at Lost Tree Village, their home course. "He wouldn't play the back nine," says Gary with a smile. Jack had to go to a meeting. Since then Gary has beaten his father one other time. That was a one-shot (70-71) victory over the full 18.
For a team tournament at Boca West last December, Gary was paired with Jack in the pro-am division. The rest of the family traipsed along outside the ropes, offering moral support and occasionally giving the needle. After Gary birdied the 13th, 14th and 15th holes in the second round, missing a hole in one by inches on the 15th, Jackie was excited. He'd appeared at the course late, having just arrived from Chapel Hill for the Christmas holidays. "Look at 'im," Jackie chortled as Gary walked onto the 16th tee and rolled his shoulders in vintage Nicklaus fashion. "He looks just like Dad."
Barbara, a gold bear on a chain around her neck, nodded at Gary and said to an acquaintance, "Of all of our kids, Gary is almost a clone. He walks the same way as Jack. He looks the same. He works hard, and he plays hard. I think Jack would be just as happy if none of the kids picked up a golf club. But with Gary, obviously he's delighted.
"Of course, it's terribly unfair for them. About eight or nine years ago, when he was playing a junior tournament, Jackie said to a reporter, 'You know, I wish you'd talk to me when I've done something for myself and not just because I'm my father's son.' "
Out in the middle of the 16th fairway, Gary saw Jackie and walked over. "La Machine," Jackie said to him, "you're looking good." Then Jackie rolled his shoulders. "We saw you give one of these back there."
Jack Sr. joined in. "Did you see the shot he played on the last hole?" he asked Jackie.
"No," answered Jackie.
"Well," said Jack, "we can watch it on the television replay tonight."
That's life with the Nicklauses. If you miss it live, you can catch it on videotape. Someone is always sticking a microphone or camera in their faces. It makes a youngster grow up fast. "Can you imagine a kid that young being able to handle that pressure so well?" says Marshall Dann, executive director of the Western Golf Association. As a 14-year-old Gary received an exemption into the WGA's junior championship for 16-to 19-year-olds. "The thing I noticed was how mean he was on the course," says Dann, not being critical. "He was born mean."
He was born a Nicklaus, after all, which means he's mean enough to tame golf. Gary has a hint of his father's eyes. those eagle orbs that burn so bright. Says Rodgers, "He has a lot of his dad's tenaciousness. He has a definite gleam in his eyes. You look at his dad's eyes, they kill you. Gary has more of a devilish look. His father and he have a good camaraderie. They laugh and giggle. Gary says, 'I'm going to beat you today,' But he doesn't do it with a vengeance. He does it with flair, and that's good. He doesn't have a complex about having to beat his dad. He's pretty secure. What it comes down to is that he idolizes his father, and he loves him to death. He likes the competition, and he's not afraid of it."
Away from golf, Gary is a laid-back teenager. When reporters interview him, he asks if they would mind putting in the name of his girl friend, Jill Moffitt. "She will like that," says Gary.
One of his friends is Mickie Gallagher, a senior who plays golf for Cardinal Newman High, Benjamin's archrival. In 1983, Benjamin beat Cardinal Newman by a stroke in the district playoffs and went on to win the state title. In '84, Cardinal Newman defeated Benjamin en route to the state championship. Gallagher, the son of a teaching pro, is often at the Nicklaus house. "The whole family is classy," he says. "And Gary is down to earth. You would think he was just another guy unless you knew his last name. You've got to respect that. He knows how to handle it very well. What you get is pretty good for a sophomore in high school."
Gary seems so calm and composed that sometimes he startles bystanders with his insight. Asked the difference between being coached by Rodgers and his father, Gary says simply, "Phil makes me do it. Dad tells me to do it."
Rodgers always told Gary that if he ever really wanted to capitalize on his natural ability to give him a call. Gary telephoned about four months ago. "Basically, Phil changed everything," Gary says. "Rebuilding is what he's doing. People always ask me if I want to be a pro. If I'm good enough, yeah. If not, forget it. It's basically how much I practice and how good I get."
Jack certainly won't quibble with that attitude. He comes by his eyes honestly. "Jack sees people reaching the maximum of their ability, as he did," says Rodgers. "Not everybody can do that, but if anybody in his family can, it's Gary. The best thing about him is, he's not afraid. He goes after it, and he does it with that Nicklaus smile on his face, that Nicklaus smirk. It's kind of fun. He's just an overall good kid."
Before Rodgers and Gary play a practice round, Rodgers always tells him, "You can't beat me, no matter how hard you try." Most of the time that's true. Once. Gary got so mad about being closed out early in a nine-hole match that on the 8th tee he said to Rodgers, "I'm going to outdrive you, hit my second shot closer and make the putt the next two holes." That's just what he did. Rodgers liked that. Jack liked it more.
During the team tournament at Boca West, the Nicklauses wound up at the practice tee one afternoon. The one obvious flaw in Gary's game is a common one in strong youngsters: a tendency to hook. It makes Jack wince to see such a defect. Jack, of course, naturally hits fades.
Earlier, Jack had talked about potential and how it applied to his son. "Who's to say how good he can be?" he said. "You can go up and down the practice tee, and how can you pick out the man with the most talent? Everyone is so close. You just have to try. Look at Lee Trevino. He had no idea how good he was until he got out on the tour and found out."
As Jack watched Gary on the tee, he seemed more interested in the odd hook that crept into Gary's drives than in their length. Jack spoke about swinging the club in a certain way. Gary listened thoughtfully. "C'mon now," Jack said. "I want to see you hit a good drive."
Gary settled over the ball and slowly drew back the club. His hands hung high at the top of his backswing. An onlooker was reminded of an old film of Jack, about 16 at the time, swinging a club. The hands at the top of Gary's swing fit the same pattern. Then Gary hit down and through the ball.
The shot produced two sounds, almost simultaneously—the crack of the ball and a yelp from Jack. "There it is!" he said, his sentence finished well before the ball had reached its zenith. "I like that."
Then Jack bent down and looked up into his son's face, only inches away. "You like that? Please...say...yes."
Gary had a sheepish grin on his face. It was only one stupid old drive. "Yes," he said.
"Yes?" cried Jack. "Yes?" Then he smiled. "Let's go home."