My Day at the Bear's Club D

The author, eager to play Jack Nicklaus's personal course, attends a high-profile fund-raiser and gets a glimpse into the private world of a very public man
November 29, 2004

Dinner was a big slab of beef. Lunch the next day was a pork chop that was bigger yet, and everybody--well, most everybody--left behind nothing but a clean plate. Beyond the ornate metal gates of the Bear's Club, in Jupiter, Fla., the rest of Palm Beach County went along its modern way: Waitresses at family restaurants performed carnal, synchronized dances, and kids in malls casually threw out the words this sucks to describe poor cellphone reception. Jack Nicklaus, the founder and chairman of the board of governors of the Bear's Club, has some distance from all that. What he owned was the 1970s. There are reminders of that everywhere you look in his stone fortress of a clubhouse. More to the point is this: Inside the gates of the Bear's Club, time has stopped.

After dinner, as the dessert course was being served, Nick Buoniconti stood at the microphone. The '70s were his too. His and his teammates'. Buoniconti was the middle linebacker on the legendary Don Shula--coached Miami Dolphins teams that still, three decades later, define football excellence. You may remember the sideburns and the fierce hits. Now Buoniconti is white-haired, no longer a big man, not physically. He was introducing the host, even though he was, as Buoniconti acknowledged with this immortal phrase, a man who needed no introduction. "I did all right. I'm in the Hall of Fame," the old footballer said. "But, Jack, you are truly the greatest. The greatest golfer of all time."

Nicklaus was sitting with his better half at table 1, wearing a club coat but no tie. (If you wear a tie in the Nicklaus house, he or one of his five kids or 17 grandchildren will snip it off.) Jack and Barbara looked at Buoniconti as if he were saying something brand-new. The Sunday-night dinner, with golf the next day, was a fund-raiser for the Miami Project, a medical-research center devoted to finding a cure for paralysis. Buoniconti is an expert on the subject because of one play in the brief college football career of his son, Marc. Marc was a sophomore middle linebacker at the Citadel in 1985 when he made a bad-luck tackle that left him paralyzed from the neck down. The Buoniconti family founded the Miami Project, and today Marc runs it. During dinner a videotape was played featuring Marc and other paraplegics struggling with the ordinary chores of daily life, such as getting out of bed. Grown men in the audience wiped their eyes with heavy dinner napkins.

Nicklaus went to the microphone. SI's Rick Reilly says that Nicklaus is the best interview in sports, and I'm a huge admirer, too, for the grace with which he handled his many runner-up finishes, among other things. Of course, he was an expert on his subject, since it was pretty much always ... Jack. The Miami Project people had invited Sports Illustrated to send somebody to the event, which meant a chance to see a part of Nicklaus's life not normally on public display. This was in late October. Nicklaus could have been hunting or fishing or designing golf holes or playing tennis with his grandchildren. Instead he was devoting a day in his life to something that had nothing to do with him, not directly. Turns out, he's been doing this sort of thing for years.

Nicklaus placed the palm of his famous, oddly small right hand on top of Marc Buoniconti's rubbery, purplish left hand and said, "Marc, next year at this event I hope we'll be playing together." Nicklaus's words were off the cuff, from the heart, moving.

Before dinner there had been a two-hour cocktail party and a silent auction. Jack Nicklaus II, faintly famous in his own right for caddying for his father in the old man's epic last-gasp win at the 1986 Masters, was eyeing a soccer ball signed by Mia Hamm. The bid was up to $1,000. "I don't know, what do you think--should I get it?" the eldest son, now a course architect, asked me. We've talked here and there over the years. He lifted the plastic display case covering the ball and imagined his kids, led by Jack Nicklaus III, knocking around a $1,000 ball in the backyard. "They'd be all over it," he said. Jackie has five kids and is going through a divorce. We talked some about course design and tournament golf, but it was clear that the thing on his mind was his kids. He's a Nicklaus.

When Christopher Reeve died in October, Marc Buoniconti lost a great ally in the quest for spinal-cord-injury research money. Reeve, left a paraplegic after being thrown from a horse, was famously aligned with the Democrats and with John Kerry, whose campaign strongly supported federal funding of stem-cell research. The Republicans, under George W. Bush, have limited such research. I asked Nick Buoniconti, who grew up in Springfield, Mass., a union town and a Democratic stronghold, about his political leanings. Buoniconti shrugged his shoulders and said, "I can't be anything. I knew the Kennedys. I know the Bushes--Jeb Bush is the governor of my state. But I can't be one or the other, not publicly. We need 'em both."

The second game of the World Series was taking place while the dinner continued. But the conversation at table 9--where I sat with Bob Beamon, the Olympic long jumper, and a bunch of football people--was all football: the SEC, the NFL, the Dolphins this, the Hurricanes that. Nicklaus, who started going to Ohio State games when he was six, is a football guy, too, so you could imagine the conversation at table 1. I caught the final innings of the baseball game in my room at the club.

Florida is overrated as a golf mecca. It has more than 1,000 courses--no state has more--but many of them are flat and swampy, and you often have to make a turnpike drive to get from green to tee. The great exception, in my Florida experience, is Seminole, an oceanfront Donald Ross classic in North Palm Beach where Hogan used to spend winters. Seminole is a chess match of a course. I had sung its praises to Nicklaus years ago, but he was dismissive. He said, "What's so special about Seminole?" The Bear's Club, just north of Seminole and inland a couple of miles, was then in the planning stages. Everybody, in a certain little circle, was talking about it.

There were about 80 amateur golfers and 20 retired celebrity athletes, plus Shula, hitting balls at the Bear's Club practice tee on Monday morning. Mike Schmidt was there and so was Gerry Cooney, the old heavyweight, and John Havlicek and Joe Namath and Bob Griese. My group consisted of Nick Buoniconti's wife, Lynn, and one of Nick's golf buddies, Joe Scott, and Joe's wife, Karen. The celebrity athlete assigned to our group was Harry Carson, a retired NFL linebacker. We were a fivesome, in three carts, plus a caddie to help keep things moving. The format was a net better ball, shotgun start, and it took well over five hours to play. I tried to concentrate on the holes, but the mind starts to wander, or at least mine does, when a round takes that long. The greens, I can tell you, are excellent. Joe, manning our buggy, often got lost between the holes. Donald Ross didn't have to route his courses with an EPA official at his side. At Seminole it's green, nine steps, tee, all the way around.

Lynn Buoniconti is a sprightly woman, new to golf. Like Tiger Woods at St. Andrews, she putted from 70 yards off the green and with considerable skill. Karen was a bona fide 14 handicapper and a putting and chipping machine. Joe was an eight, and I was the house duffer. Harry carried a 22 handicap and his cellphone, but he dutifully asked for our scores after every hole. All the way around, it seemed to go like this:

"Joe?"

"Five."

"Michael?"

"X."

"Karen?"

"Four net three!"

At the postround lunch--early dinner, really--Nick Buoniconti handed out the hardware. All those four-net-threes added up to 13 under par, and our group finished third. We were each given a crystal trophy with an image of Nicklaus, at the top of his backswing, somehow suspended in the middle. I felt ridiculous accepting such a prize while standing in front of Namath, Nicklaus, Schmidt, Griese and, of course, Marc Buoniconti, still in his wheelchair, at least for now.

Our table was the last to break up, and the thing I'll remember best about that lunch was Nick Buoniconti and Griese and some other old Dolphins talking animatedly about this and that: pension funds, an unexpected win for the Dolphins, the firing of coach Ron Zook at Florida, a play from 30 years ago. "The thing about these guys," Lynn Buoniconti said to me, "they weren't playing for money. There was no money. They were playing for each other."

It was announced that the day at the Bear's Club had raised more than $600,000 for the Miami Project. Nick and Marc looked pleased, and so did Barbara. The host, the man who needed no introduction, looked the most pleased of all.

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Jim Mandeville/Nicklaus WINNING TEAM Marc Buoniconti, surrounded by (from left) Namath, Jack Atkinson, Tucker Fredrickson, Jack Schneider and Dave Burke. SEVEN COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Jim Mandeville/Nicklaus[1] The football talk was hot and heavy, which suited Shula. [2] Tico Torres, drummer for Bon Jovi, represented the rockers. [3] Three-time NBA All-Star Truck Robinson was on board. [4] Veteran catcher Gary Carter showed a little leg while detailing one of his nine knee operations. [5] Nicklaus made it clear that his Bear's Club is on a par with its legendary neighbor, Seminole. [6] Barbara and Jack, a team for 43 years, were perfect hosts. [7] Cooney still showed some punch. FIVE COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Jim Mandeville/Nicklaus[1] Through the cocktail party, dinner, golf the next day and the awards luncheon, Nicklaus was the center of attention. [2] Former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor has become ubiquitous at Florida golf outings. [3] Like Nicklaus, Cooney (left), Havlicek (center) and Rusty Staub are of the '70s. [4] Retired for 15 years, Schmidt nonetheless can grip it and rip it. [5] A pair of New York legends, Namath (left) and Fredrickson had five hours to reminisce on the course. TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Jim Mandeville/Nicklaus[1] Eighty amateur golfers teamed up with 20 celebrities to raise more than $600,000 for the Miami Project. [2] Even though he advocates federal support of stem-cell research, Nick Buoniconti (with former teammate Paul Warfield) says he can't afford to be a Democrat or a Republican in public.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)