Nan'sTrip

When Jack Nicklaus stands on the Swilcan Bridge to offer a final salute to the British Open, he'll also be saying goodbye to a far more personal and beloved family tradition
July 11, 2005

This is about the least likely place to find Jack Nicklaus: chugging up the gently sloping sidewalk of Worth Avenue, the gilded shopping drag in Palm Beach, Fla., going past Gucci and Cartier, past Armani and Chanel. Nicklaus is still pure pass-the-gravy Buckeye despite the decades on Florida's Gold Coast and the years traveling in his own jet. He takes his four sons all over the world, for tournaments, for hunting, for fishing, for first looks at the jungles where he envisions golf courses. He hits Worth Avenue not for the precious chain stores but to go antiquing (to use a word he never would) for his daughter. For more than 30 years now, on Christmas and on her birthday, Nan Nicklaus O'Leary has gotten some old thing her father has found. Many of the gifts have the stamp of Britain on them: a tea strainer, a toast rack, an umbrella stand. There's a reason for that.

"A lot of people don't even realize Jack has a daughter," says Barbara Nicklaus, Jack's wife of nearly 45 years. "But Jack and Nan have a close relationship." Nan is not an expert on when her father did what--that's more the province of her brothers, Jack Jr., who's 43; Steve, 42; Gary, 36; and Michael, who turns 32 this month. But Nan, who's 40, knows where she got the unusual interlocking grip she used while playing softball in high school: She stole it from her dad's golf grip. "They were always close. All the British Open trips they made together brought them even closer," says her mom.

The father and daughter started going to British Opens together in 1975, when Nan was 10 and Jack ruled golf. A wire-service photographer got a snap of Jack and his little blonde girl in her pom-pommed tam-o'-shanter. That was the year Tom Watson announced his arrival, winning what Nan calls "that jug" in a playoff over Jack Newton. Nan, no surprise, doesn't remember that her father finished a shot out of the playoff. She remembers the funny accents, the high teas, the wet wool--and having, or almost having, her father to herself.

In Nicklaus family lore, the British Open was Nan's Trip. Her brothers would go to the other majors and sometimes even attend the British, but Nan would always make the Open trip. Some years Nan and her father would leave a week before the Open and go to Europe, so Jack could check in on the courses he was building and play in exhibitions. Boarding Air Bear for those trips would be Jack and Nan and, to use Nan's phrase, "one or two men from the office and their wives." Once they arrived at the venue--at St. Andrews or Troon or Muirfield or Birkdale and the old hotels that went with them--Barbara would come over, with whichever sons weren't tied up with summer baseball tournaments and the like. Still, the British Open was Nan's Trip. All the Nicklauses will tell you that. There was never a chaperone. In the hotels and on the courses, Nan and Michele Player, Gary's daughter, would look after one another.

One year, some days before the start of the Open, Jack was in Germany, where he was building a course. Nan was with him. She was in high school then, studying French and dreaming of France. She was, Jack says, "a tomboy with a girlish side." One day on this German trip, Nicklaus, with almost no planning, ended his workday early, boarded Air Bear with Nan and a nice man from the office and his wife, and off they went to Paris, for a dinner with many courses and a night in a Parisian hotel. It was just Nan and her father.

This year will be Jack and Nan's last Open trip together. Nicklaus is 65, the official retirement age for former British Open champions. The Open is at the Old Course in St. Andrews, where Nicklaus won in 1970 and '78. Along with Pebble Beach and Augusta National, it is one of his three favorite places in all of golf. He could play in the Masters again, but it's unlikely with the course getting longer and Jack's game getting shorter. Same for his tournament, the Memorial. This is probably it, Jack's farewell to big-stage golf. The Nicklauses will stay in a small hotel on the outskirts of town, Rufflets Country House, where they have stayed on their St. Andrews trips since 1964. This year Nan will have her own room, with her husband, Bill O'Leary, who played football at Georgia with Herschel Walker and who works for Jack's course-building business as a landscape designer. Steve Nicklaus will caddie for his father.

Predicting emotional responses to scheduled events is a game best left to TV producers, but it seems safe to say that the Open week at St. Andrews will be wistful for the Nicklaus family. "It's hard to see your parents get older," says Nan. And Steve's presence will be fraught with feeling, too, after the horrid accident in March, when Steve and Krista Nicklaus's 17-month-old son, Jake, slipped away from his nanny, crawled to the backyard hot tub and drowned. The lives of this unusually close family--Jack's five kids have given him 16 grandchildren--have not been the same since. The reminders come daily. "There was something in the paper today," Barbara Nicklaus said recently. "'When you lose a parent, you lose the past. When you lose a child, you lose the future.' I'll forever see Jake with his little hands in the air, saying, 'Pee-Paw!'" To the Nicklaus grandchildren, Jack is Pee-Paw and Barbara is Mimi.

"My parents were never intrusive, but they were always there to make everything O.K.," Nan says. She looks like Jack, and she has his open, uncomplicated way. She also has her mother's kindliness and patience. She was in her large Florida house, near the ocean. All five of her kids were home. There were fresh waffles on the counter and a lasagna in the oven. Bill would be coming home later from a fishing trip with Jack. The bean-shaped backyard pool was a splash factory. "In this situation they were helpless. It's like, You guys have always been able to make it right, and you can't make this right."

Life changed, goes on. (Krista is expecting again.) Nan's son Nick (short for Nicklaus), the second-oldest of her four boys, is 12, and he's long and lanky and athletic. He was with his grandfather recently at Jack's home course, the Bear's Club in Jupiter, Fla., where Jack was shooting an ad. They needed a kid to make some swings, and Nick was called in. "He hadn't played golf in months, and he didn't miss a shot," Jack says. "He'll be a professional athlete at something."

Nicklaus will always be a jock, no matter how old he gets. He loves that his daughter can beat her husband at golf, which she hardly plays, and at tennis. Nan's a jock too. But she's still looking for her first win in tennis over her father. (That won't be wistful.) In high school Jack watched her play volleyball (she went to Georgia on a volleyball scholarship) and softball and even soccer, although the that game's charms eluded him.

The lessons in determination that Nan learned from her father didn't come only from watching him play. In '83 the British Open was at Royal Birkdale, the Nicklauses stayed, as they always did, at the Prince of Wales Hotel. Jack, Barbara and Nan were in a single room. The hotel was old and the heat was out of control, and the room became oppressively hot. The windows were painted shut, but Jack worked at one until he could pry it open. Still, the room needed some cross ventilation, so Jack propped open the door. He created a security system with a wall of empty suitcases. "If anybody tries to steal something, we'll hear 'em," Jack said, and the memory still makes Nan giggle.

Jack says his daughter is a terrific traveling companion, never one to complain, and not materialistic. "She's like Barbara, easy to be with, like an old shoe," Jack says. (He must have killed the ladies at Ohio State with lines like that.) Nan would sometimes play at a neighbor's, where there were three girls. "The mother there, Carol Young, would say to me, 'Nan's the toughest girl I've ever seen,' but I thought she was normal," says Jack.

"Girls would be at my house and say, 'Your father's intimidating,'" says Nan. "And I'd say, 'No, he's not. But he's not going to ask some 14-year-old girl, 'How was school today?'"

Jack let the boys do their thing. With Nan, he was more protective. He told one suitor, "Behave like a gentleman." The kid trembled. Regarding another boyfriend, Jack brought Nan into a private room and said, "Uh-huh." Bill O'Leary had passed the Jack test. On her wedding day Nan said to her father, "Don't tell me I look pretty, because I'm going to start crying."

"Well, you look pretty."

River of tears.

Now they're off to the British Open, Nan's Trip, one final time. Nan was there when Jack won his third and last Open, in '78, at which a picture was taken of Jack--long-haired and golden and cradling the jug--that remains Barbara's favorite of him. Nan was there in '84, when her father, who never graduated from Ohio State, received an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews. She was there in '95, when Tiger Woods, still an amateur, stayed at Rufflets. She was there in 2000, when Woods became the first golfer since her father to win the career Grand Slam, playing the Old Course nearly to the blueprint Nicklaus had drawn up years before. Nan has no idea where she was when her father holed his final putt in '78. She was 13 then, and it seemed as if her father would win tournaments forever. Now she's seen more of life and knows better.

At least, she and her father will always have Paris.

B/W PHOTOPhotograph by GERRY CRANHAM ONE FOR ONEIn 1966, when Nan was only a year old, her father won the first of his three Open Championships. COLOR PHOTOJIM MANDEVILLE/NICKLAUS COMPANIES DADDY'S GIRL Jack and Nan before their last Open TWO B/W PHOTOSAP ADOPTED SONJack won all of his claret jugs in Scotland, and his affinity for the country has earned him legions of fans (left) and an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews (above). TWO B/W PHOTOSAP FLY GIRLDad and daughter posed at the '75 Open (below), and in '76 (from left) Jackie, Gary, Jack, Michael, Barbara and Steve watched Nan flip.

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)