Jack Nicklaus is not 5'11" anymore. He's two or three inches
shorter than that. His left hip is ceramic. His stance, once so
broad and sturdy, is narrow now, almost cramped. His trademark
tee shot, the soaring fade, has been replaced by a line-drive
draw. The distinctive and pointy collars of the golf shirts he
wore for years--collars with wingspans, they were--are now soft and
round, like everybody else's. NICKLAUS is embroidered on the left
sleeve of his shirts, a reference not really to his family name
but to the company that makes his clothes and equipment. His golf
bag, once adorned with a simple, cursive MACGREGOR, is now
festooned with golden bears. Nicklaus, along with the rest of us,
has entered the age of the ubiquitous logo. His golf shoes are
orthopedic specials, with cushiony soles nearly an inch thick and
rubber nubs for spikes. The man is 60 years old. What did you
expect, that he could stay young forever?
This is it, the last year of Nicklaus in full swing, the final
time, Nicklaus says, he will play the four majors in a single
year. He is making his swan song on courses where he has left his
mark, on courses that have helped define his career. The first
stop, of course, is Augusta National, where he won the Masters on
six occasions. The U.S. Open is at Pebble Beach, where Nicklaus
won the '61 U.S. Amateur and the '72 U.S. Open. The British Open
is at the Old Course, where Nicklaus won in '70 and '78. The PGA
Championship is at Valhalla, in Louisville, a course Nicklaus
designed. He will do something dramatic this year, orthopedic
shoes and all. He will do something dramatic this year because
his will and his ability to think are as strong as they have ever
been. There are only six people close enough to Nicklaus to make
that judgment --Barbara Nicklaus and the five Nicklaus
children--and that's their assessment.
"He could win at Augusta," says the oldest of the children, Jack
Nicklaus II, who goes by Jackie. "The Masters is the major where
he thinks he has his best chance. Who knows that course better
than him? He could win at Pebble, because it's a thinking-man's
course and he can still think his way around a course as well as
anybody. He could win at St. Andrews, because length is not so
important there, but you have to know how to play shots, and he
does. He's playing, he's practicing, he's working out. When he
puts his mind to something, he usually gets things done."
With all due respect to Ben Hogan's secret, the truly great
unsolved mystery of golf involves the inner workings of
Nicklaus's head. No one has been given real access to his mind,
no writer, no psychologist, no trusted insider. It is entirely
possible that Nicklaus himself doesn't know how the thing works.
He has talked, sparingly, about his ability to go into a cocoon
of concentration, and he has said that Hogan and Tiger Woods are
the only other players he has seen do something similar, and
that's about all he has really said about his head and how it
functions. But Barbara and the five children have made a lifelong
study of the man, and they know things the rest of us do not.
Anyone could say that Nicklaus will do well to make two cuts in
the majors this year. There's no sport in that prediction. Of
course he's not the golfer he was 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.
What's fascinating is to hear the six people in the world closest
to Nicklaus say that he can still win, and that is what they all
They think he can win because they truly believe what so many say
without ever understanding: More than anything, golf is a mind
game. "His mind is still unbelievably strong," says Michael
Nicklaus, at 26 the youngest of the children. "The other day we
were playing a match, and he was lining up a 25-footer and he
says, 'Hate to do this to you,' with this little smile on his
face. Sure enough, he holes the putt. That's pure will."
You might think the family is living in some sort of time warp,
that they think it's 1980 again, the year Nicklaus, at 40, won
the U.S. Open and the PGA. They're not. When Nicklaus turned 60
in January, rather than hide, he celebrated with scores of
friends and family members in his home in North Palm Beach, Fla.
But every 20 minutes or so the birthday boy ducked out of the
festivities and into his home office, where he logged on to
pgatour.com, clicked on the real-time scores and scrolled
through the list to see if his second youngest, Gary, was going
to make the cut in the Sony Open, in Hawaii. (He did.) The
Golden Bear is plugged in.
The rest know the score, too. Last month Jack and Gary played in
the Doral-Ryder Open, and after a long session on the practice
tee after the first round, father Nicklaus was hobbling around,
his feet stiff and aching. The sight was painful for Gary. "He
was hurting that week," Gary says. "Nobody wants to see a parent
like that. But he's 60, not 30. He's going to have these aches."
This is not a family in denial.
All five children live within a few miles of their parents.
Gary, divorced from his first wife and now engaged to Heather
McDonough, is 31 and has his Tour card for the first time.
Michael, married to the former Traci Vance, works for a dot.com
company called Golfport, partially owned by his father. Nancy,
the lone girl squashed between two older boys and two younger
ones, is 34 and the mother of four boys and a girl, just as her
mother is. Nan's husband, Bill O'Leary, works for his
father-in-law's course-design company. Steve Nicklaus, 36,
married to the former Krista Johnson and the father of an infant
boy, is a co-owner of Executive Sports International, an
event-management company with offices in the same building as
his father's, in Golden Bear Plaza in North Palm Beach. Jack II,
38, a prolific course designer in his father's company, is also
married to a Barbara, the former Barbara Gillespie. That couple
has five children, too--three boys, two girls. The Nicklaus kids
are all grown up. They're adults.
If anybody is in a time warp, it is we, the golf-watching public.
The Nicklaus kids, we know them mostly in frozen moments from
their towheaded childhoods. Maybe you caught a glimpse of them at
an awards ceremony on TV, or in a picture in a magazine, or in a
two-paragraph wire story, always connected to one of the majors
because that's when they were seen in public. Maybe you remember
the '73 PGA at Canterbury, in Cleveland, when Gary, a precocious
four-year-old, ran onto the 18th green, not after his father had
won the thing, which he eventually did, but while Nicklaus was
finishing up his second round. Maybe you remember seven-year-old
Michael at the '80 PGA at Oak Hill sticking his head under the
Wanamaker Trophy hoisted by his jubilant, youthful-looking
Nicklaus built his schedule around the majors, but the kids did
not, except Nan. Every July she would travel with her parents to
England or Scotland for the British Open, although not
necessarily to the course itself. Her favorite stories from these
trips are from off the course. For instance, the '76 Open, which
was played at Royal Birkdale in a stifling and aberrant heat.
Their hotel, the Prince of Wales in Southport, England, had no
air-conditioning and the windows were painted shut. They slept
with the door open, but father Nicklaus, worried about nocturnal
intruders, expended much effort to build a teetering tower of
suitcases that would tumble if a warm body so much as darkened
the doorway. He finished in a tie for second. Nan doesn't know
where, exactly, she was when her father won on the Old Course in
'78, when she was 13. She was somewhere in the vicinity. This
year she'll be on the fabled links, following her father. When
she was 13, it was just Dad winning again, as he always did. The
opportunities are rarer and more precious now.
The '76 British Open at Birkdale marked the first time Jackie
caddied for his father. Ten years later, in 1986, Jackie was on
the bag when his father won at Augusta for the sixth time, and
their triumph together is what Jack Nicklaus regards as his
greatest professional moment. The 1998 Masters is way up there
too. Two years ago at Augusta, at 58 and playing on a bum hip,
Jack tied for sixth. For some reason that amazing accomplishment
was never fully recognized by the public. Within the family it is
savored. Not just for the sixth-place finish, which was momentous
enough, but for having the father stride the fairways of Augusta
National alongside his second son, Steve, his caddie for the
week. There had been a time when the chances of that happening
were beyond remote.
The day before the first round of the 1981 British Open, while
driving at 2:30 a.m. on an Ohio highway named for his father,
Steve Nicklaus, then 18, ran off the road, hit a culvert, plowed
through a chain-link fence and flipped his car. Steve was
uninjured. The wagon was wrecked. In the first round of the
tournament Nicklaus shot an 83, probably the only time an
off-course problem oozed into his on-course cocoon. In the second
round Nicklaus, back in his cocoon, shot a 66.
It would be unnecessary to bring up this ancient incident except
that the hangover lingered for years and helped define Steve's
relationship with his father. "When you're growing up, you think
your dad's a dummy," he says. "You think he's not on the same
Steve is a big man, a former wide receiver at Florida State.
"There was a time I was very different. I was an iconoclast," he
says. Steve doesn't use many two-dollar words, but that last word
rolls out of his mouth effortlessly, as if he has used it many
times before. "I always disagreed with my parents, whether they
were right or wrong. Jackie and I used to fight like cats and
dogs. I led a college fraternity life until I was 27, 28, staying
out until four, five, six in the morning. Dad thought I drank too
much, but he didn't try to stop me. Then I quit on my own. I
haven't had a drink in eight years." Since then, Steve has become
a devoted weekend and business golfer who breaks 80 routinely. He
spends a lot of time with his father, on golf courses and in the
office. "Our relationship is a lot better now," he says. "I think
he's a genius."
Of all the children, Steve is probably the least sentimental
about the ending of an era. "He'll be around for a long time,
just like Arnold [Palmer]. All this year really is is the end of
his era on the regular Tour," Steve says. "That's natural.
Everybody gets old, right? You just hope they keep getting older.
Dad's on the right side of the grass."
But he knows this year will be one for the books; he knows his
father will do everything he can to make it special. "A couple
months ago I went to my father and said, 'I'd really like to
caddie for you in some of the majors this year.' He said, 'Your
brother has already beaten you to it.' Jackie had asked, I don't
know when, but a lot earlier. Asked for all four tournaments.
Didn't say a thing, which was smart. Dad said, 'Talk to your
brother, see if you can work something out.'"
There was not much to negotiate. Jackie and Steve, the fights of
their youth long resolved, are best friends now. Steve said
caddying for his father this year was something he needed to do,
and Jackie gave up two of the majors. The namesake will work the
Masters and the U.S. Open. Steve will work at Valhalla and St.
Andrews, a place his father reveres. The feeling is mutual. There
is no place in the world--Augusta and Columbus, Ohio,
included--where Nicklaus is more deeply appreciated than St.
Andrews. "I'll be with him when he makes that final walk over the
Swilcan Burn bridge," Steve says, referring to the Old Course
landmark on the home hole. "That will be something." Those four
words alone imply a healed relationship, an understanding of time
and place, a son's profound appreciation for the accomplishments
of his father.
The loftiest dream for the year comes from the third son, Gary,
who is named for Gary Player but who closely resembles his dad,
right down to the impish smile. The dream, recurring, involves
Gary and his father playing in the same major this year, paired
together, with the title in either man's grasp. Then the dream
stops. The reality is that Gary has played in only one major
(the '97 U.S. Open), is not qualified for next week's Masters
and will be in a dogfight with hundreds of other players to earn
a spot in any of the other three. This year he has played in
nine Tour events, made four cuts and, through the Players
Championship, is 146th on the money list. This is not the
ranking the editors of this magazine anticipated when, at 16,
his picture was placed on the cover of the March 11, 1985,
issue of SI along with the headline THE NEXT NICKLAUS.
Dreams aside, Gary knows his father's struggles this year. (In 11
individual rounds on the Senior and regular Tour, Nicklaus's
scoring average is 73.7.) There is nobody who spends more time
with Jack than Gary these days. "It's not fun to watch, to see
him hit shots he would never have hit in his prime," Gary says.
"Hitting a hook to him is like pouring acid on his face. Here's a
guy who dominated everybody for a long time and now, because of
age, can no longer do what he wants to do. You worry about what
that does to him mentally."
With his next breath Gary will remind you that his father's golf
was horrid in his seven events leading up to the '86 Masters,
that last winter his father won three team events while playing
superbly, and that his father's game will come around because it
has always bent to his will in the end. In the end, nobody does
positive reinforcement like the Nicklauses.
"It may sound silly, but I really think he can win this year,"
says Barbara Nicklaus. "At the Masters two years ago, Jack
finished in a tie for sixth, four shots behind Mark O'Meara.
O'Meara had 105 putts and Jack had 115. If Jack had putted
better, he could have won. Check the numbers, but I think that's
correct." Her late father, a math teacher, would be proud. Her
numbers are exactly correct.
Then there is the man himself. Nicklaus becomes coy when you ask
him about winning a major this year. He has been around the game
for an eon. He knows you can't control what the other guy--whether
the other guy is Palmer or Watson or Woods--will do. What you can
do is get yourself in contention.
"I know I can play well," Nicklaus says. He was sitting on a
couch in a deserted lobby at the Doral Resort and Spa in Miami.
He had just come from a workout and was wearing shorts, a T-shirt
and sneakers. He's a little wide in the middle. His hair is short
now, a mane no longer. He's 60. He looks great. He says that what
he would love to be doing this year is watching Gary play. He
says you cannot compare his satisfaction as a golfer with his
satisfaction as a father. One is his profession, the other is his
life. But a swan song is a swan song, he says, and this is the
right year for his.
"It's not that difficult to play golf. I'm stronger than I was in
'98. I've got two legs now. I want to play. I have the ability to
practice," he says. "But realistically, I don't know if a
60-year-old man can win a major." He paused for a moment, kicked
up his oaken legs on a table. "My head sometimes is my worst
enemy." It was odd to hear him talk about his head that way.
Everybody knows that Jack's head is his best friend. But he had
shot 75 that day in the first round at Doral. On the practice
tee, he had hobbled around.
He's Jack Nicklaus. He doesn't stay down for long. "I think a
60-year-old man can contend," he says finally. "I plan to find
Jackie. "Who knows that course better than him?"
Burn bridge," says Steve. "That will be something."