Know Jack: Athlete, basketball driver, tennis diver

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Jack Nicklaus throwing a baseball in the 1950s. (Nicklaus Family Archives)

Fat Jack. Ohio Fats. The crew-cut, pudgy kid who smoked cigarettes and lumbered down fairways.

No way that guy – that guy – was an athlete.

But athlete he was, and still is.

Nicklaus, encouraged by his father, Charlie, played a variety of sports when he was a kid.

“I think it’s ridiculous for kids to be on one sport. I just think it’s awful,” Nicklaus says. “I played football, I played basketball, I played baseball, played tennis, ran track. That’s where I got my exercise. That’s where I built my body.

“Kids that play all sports become better athletes and can end up finding their own sport as they get a little older.”


Jack: A collection of Nicklaus stories


Charlie had hoped his son would continue his football career through high school and perhaps to Ohio State. But Buckeyes’ head coach Woody Hayes altered that path.

“Woody came along and said, ‘Look, Charlie, your boy … he’s got a great talent. You keep him as far away from my game as you can,’” Jack says.

Dad had played football at OSU. He was also a city tennis champ and played volleyball. When he broke his ankle competing in the latter, his doctor advised him to take up a sport where he could walk for exercise. Charlie chose golf. He then joined Scioto Country Club, let Jack tag along, and … well, here we are.

Nowadays, Jack plays far more tennis than golf. He has three, well-maintained grass courts at his North Palm Beach house and competes in doubles matches every weekend he's home. He’s hosted tennis luminaries like Venus and Serena Williams, who have prepped for Wimbledon on his lawn.

“[We] were playing last year and we hit a short ball and Jack’s going for the ball and he ends up catching one at his feet and he lays out and dives for the ball, completely laid out, raquet extended, hits the ball across court for a winner,” says Matt Lerer, one of Jack's tennis regulars.

“Everybody’s running to him, ‘You OK? You OK?’ and Jack rolls over and he says, ‘Did I make it?’”

Fortunately, Jack no longer has that drive for recreational basketball. He played in a league, into his 40s.

“I used to come home after a golf tournament and on Mondays go play in a rec league,” Nicklaus says. “The guys I was playing with, they’d all turn around and say, ‘You take him out, you’re seeing us afterwards.’

“I used to make my living going to the basket.”