Jack Nicklaus Interview

You might have figured that golf great Jack Nicklaus was slowing down when he announced in February 2018 that he was stepping away from day-to-day operations of his companies. His calendar sure doesn’t look like that of a man who’s taking it easy, however. 

Nicklaus struck the opening tee shot at the Masters in April last year, teaming with pal Gary Player in the Legends of Golf; hosted the PGA Tour's Memorial Tournament the month after that; and is opening more golf courses, including one in Russia and his first in Latvia. In addition to leaving his mark as the designer of more than 400 courses around the world, he has attached his name to products ranging from golf balls, wine, beverages, ice cream, and restaurants to lifestyle items such as apparel and footwear. 

Sailfish Point Golf Club

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Sailfish Point Golf Club

An island-like property incorporates a compelling, Jack-Nicklaus-designed course.

Nicklaus, whose playing career ended in 2005, won 73 PGA Tour titles between 1962 and 1986. It is his 18 major championships that stand unmatched and set him apart, however. By this most objective measure, he is the greatest golfer of all time. (Tiger Woods, winner of 14 majors, has renewed his pursuit of this claim.)

Now 79, Nicklaus still attacks life with the same vigor that he used to pick apart a golf course. All of his duties, not to mention his charitable initiatives for the Nicklaus Healthcare Foundation, require extensive travel in the U.S. and abroad, and it's why he values flying privately. He says his Gulfstream jet has "paid for itself 10 times over." 

Nicklaus has long been a favorite of the press. As Golf Digest’s Guy Yocom has put it, "If you ask questions that challenge him or tickle his imagination, he will say more in a short period of time than almost anyone in golf." During a lengthy sit-down interview (which turned into a lay-down conversation as Nicklaus did a series of stretches to loosen his back), he touched on a dizzying number of topics, including his decision to turn pro, his rivalry with Arnold Palmer, the discovery that he was color-blind, and the time he landed on a runway that sloped uphill.

Jack Nicklaus
Florida’s Sailfish Point Golf Club, one of the more than 400 courses Nicklaus has designed.

When did you first feel that a golf career was in your future? 
It never entered my mind until I was about 20. Growing up, I didn’t see many guys that got the opportunity to do that. But I played college golf, won the national amateur in 1959, and almost won the U.S. Open as an amateur in 1960. I thought, I really can compete against these guys. 

You made an eight-foot left-to-right breaking putt on the final hole to win the 1959 U.S. Amateur. How critical was that as the launching pad of your career?
I didn't think much about it at the time, but it was probably the most important putt I ever made. It gave me the feeling that I can do this, and winning breeds winning. Holing that putt gave me the confidence that if I get myself into a position where I have to come through, I've done it before, I can do it again.

Jack Nicklaus

You had a storied rivalry with Arnold Palmer. How did it begin?
First time I met Arnold, I was 18. We played together [on Sept. 25, 1958] at Dow Finsterwald Day at Athens Country Club in Ohio. We had a driving contest and I won. Of course, I always kidded Arnold about that, and he always kidded me that he shot 63. So that was sort of the start of our rivalry, not that either of us knew that at that time.

You're best known for your major titles but is there a victory among your PGA Tour titles that meant just as much if not more to you? 
Probably what meant more than most of my majors was winning the Memorial in 1977. That was the tournament I started in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, at the golf club I founded, Muirfield Village. It was our second year of the tournament. I'm picking up trash and cigarette butts and putting them in my caddie's pockets and organizing this, organizing that, and still won the tournament, too. I'm very proud of that.

You have a reputation for being gracious in defeat. What made you that type of person?
My dad. He always told me, "That other guy is working just as hard as you are, and if he beats you, he deserves to be congratulated and you ought to do it properly. You'll get your chance the next time."

Do you have a favorite quotation or words you live by?
There’s a line from a McDonald's Happy Meal cup. In 1988, I played at the PGA Championship at Oak Tree National near Oklahoma City. I didn't really like the course and didn't prepare for it correctly. Not surprisingly, I didn't play very well, and I missed the cut [on Friday]. The only thing worse than missing the cut is having to stay the weekend to do television commentary. I was working for ABC at the time. We went to dinner at McDonald's Friday night and my wife Barbara saw this cup inscribed with the phrase: "There's no excuse for not being properly prepared." Those words have always stuck with me. 

Do you remember when you started flying privately?
Well, Arnold piloted an Aero Commander, and I hopped rides with him, probably in 1962 and ’63. With each flight, the urge to get behind the wheel grew and in ’64 he introduced me to the people from Aero Commander. 

Jack Nicklaus

I remember the day I closed on my first plane. The head of sales for Aero Commander picked me up in Columbus for the flying version of a test drive. While we were in the air in this Grand Commander, he decided to show me what the plane could do, and he flew low, buzzing the airport at Ohio State University at about 100 feet off the ground and did a barrel roll. 

I ended up buying the airplane. It had a cruising speed of 220 miles an hour and a thousand-mile range, and it could seat seven passengers. I flew that airplane as a student pilot all over the United States. Having started my flying lessons on a little Cessna 150, a training plane with the old push-pull throttle, I had logged about 800 hours with a teacher in the right seat. It was 1969 when I decided I was going to obtain my private pilot license. 

At the time, we were doing some stuff with Gates Learjet, and the president of the company was a fellow by the name of Hig Gould, and Hig and I went to flight safety school at LaGuardia together, and we went through the testing. I did my written, and then I had to do a physical and found out I was red-green colorblind—not a good thing when you’re trying to find the green beacon at an airport. 

You had no idea?
None. The guy tested me and said, "Jack, you are the most colorblind person I've ever tested." So there was no way I could get an instrument certificate. That's when I thought, “OK, I better leave the flying to the professionals.” 

That said, when I fly in a helicopter, I always ask for two sets of controls, just in case something were to happen to the pilot. That way, I could get us on the ground. Nothing frightens me more than being out of control.

I had a number of pilots over the years, including Dutch Deutschendorf, whose son was the singer John Denver.

For the most part, my flying experiences were wonderful. I had Lears, Cessnas, Sabreliners, and JetStars, and then I started traveling more internationally, and I wanted something bigger. So I bought a used GIIB Gulfstream, and flew it all over the world. Then I bought a GIII, then a GIV, and then a GV. 

You just kept upgrading?
I figured my business was good, so I could. The airplane was by far the best business tool I had. It paid for itself 10 times over every year. That jet got me to be able to travel. If I wanted to, I could go to Japan, Korea, China, Malaysia, and back home in a week or 10 days, whereas it would have taken me three-and-a-half to four weeks commercially to do the same. It would save me two weeks at least two or three times a year. So that's pretty good. That's why I got into airplanes. 

Do you still own a Gulfstream?
Yeah, I've got a GIV-SP with tail number N1JN that we call "Air Bear." [Nicklaus’s companies also still own a GV, but the bulk of his travel is on the GIV-SP. —Ed.]

When you're in the air, how do you use your time?
I take care of a bunch of business. And they've got movies on the airplane, although I haven't watched a movie in the last five or 10 trips. I usually am so busy doing other stuff, and I like to catch up on sleep.

It's been well documented that you made a major effort to get home to be with your family and see your kids, and later your grandkids, compete in various sports. How important was it to have the plane for that as well? 
Oh, it was unbelievable. I mean, maybe it was a little bit of an extravagance at times, but I felt it was worth it. For instance, their biggest football game of the year usually was the Benjamin School [in North Palm Beach, Florida] versus Glades Day School [in Belle Glade, Florida]. I remember I played in the World Series of Golf in Akron, Ohio, and I flew home on Friday after I played. Then I went back and played Saturday.

Jack Nicklaus

Another time, they were in the state championship finals against Florida A&M High School. I was playing the Mexican Open, and I flew home from Mexico City to Tallahassee to watch the game and back the next day to play. 

The kids, they thought that was just what Dad did. And now, 20 years later, they say, "My dad did that? Isn't that neat?" I did it because I wanted to be part of their lives, and when something is important in their lives, I wanted to be there. And I've continued to do that with my grandkids.

Where have you flown just for fun?
I love to fish, and I'd take some buddies to Los Cabos, Mexico, to Palmilla, a fishing resort that had its own airstrip. It overlooks the Sea of Cortez. I first visited there in 1964. I was a young pilot and my copilot is beside me and I'm flying in and all of a sudden, I feel a hand atop mine pushing the throttle forward. The runway slopes slightly uphill. So I was lining up and getting below it, which was a little dangerous. But I think that's what you have a copilot for. And you know what? We turned that runway into a golf hole.

Which one of your courses did it become part of? 
Palmilla Golf Club. It's the first course I designed in Latin America. In 1986, they decided they wanted to add golf to their offerings. We designed seven courses there, and now my friends kid me that I'm the guy that ruined Cabo. You used to be able to go down to Cabo with a pair of gym shorts and sandals and 20 bucks and spend the week. You can't get out of the airport for that now.


This interview has been edited and condensed.


FAST FACTS

NAME: Jack Nicklaus

BORN: Jan. 21, 1940 (age 79), in Columbus, Ohio.
OCCUPATION: Golfer, golf-course designer, owner of several golf-related businesses, philanthropist.

ACHIEVEMENTS: Winner of 73 PGA Tour titles, including a record 18 major championships. Elected into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. Recipient of the 2015 Congressional Gold Medal.

EDUCATION: Ohio State University (left a few courses short of graduation but received honorary degree in 1972)
TRANSPORTATION: Gulfstream GIV-SP
PERSONAL: Lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida with wife Barbara. Five children, 22 grandchildren.


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