Jack Nicklaus doesn’t make a habit of keeping secrets from his wife. He and Barbara will be married 55 years this July. They have five children and 22 grandchildren. They’ve walked hand in hand through a lifetime in golf. She served as his driving force, shepherding him to so much career success. Their achievements together are only superseded by the memories.
So, no. He doesn’t keep secrets. Except this one, from four years ago.
Jack knew at the time that Barbara was on the ballot for the USGA’s prestigious Bob Jones Award. The organization’s highest honor, the award is annually presented to an individual “who demonstrates the spirit, personal character and respect for the game” exhibited by the famed Jones. He knew because he had a vote – and yes, like any doting husband, he voted for his wife.
Not that she knew any of this. While Jack’s awards are the stuff of legend – the 18 major championships; the World Golf Hall of Fame induction; the Congressional Gold Medal; heck, he’s even featured on currency in the U.K. – accolades for Barbara have always come in a more unofficial capacity. She had no reason to believe she’d been nominated for this award, no reason to think it could be her year.
And so she was neither disappointed nor surprised when she lost to Annika Sorenstam in a run-off vote. The truth is, she never knew. Her husband might have voted for her, but he kept it a secret.
Jack can finally tell Barbara just how close she came to winning four years ago, because she’s been named as this year’s recipient of the award. No more secrets.
“She's been so great to so many people in the game of golf,” Jack said during a Wednesday teleconference. “She's contributed so much to what's gone on with the wives and Tour wives and the advice she's given to all the young girls coming out and the kids she's been involved with, the charities she's been involved with.”
The award comes exactly four decades after it was bestowed upon her husband – during the year of his 13th and 14th major titles – and Barbara will not only join an elite list of those who plied their craft inside the ropes, but one which also includes presidents and entertainers.
“Wow,” she was quoted as exclaiming to the USGA upon hearing the news. “What a truly humbling honor.”
Jack undoubtedly held no surprise at the reaction. As he said: “Barbara is one person that is never on her own mind. It's always somebody else and what can I do for them. That's the amazing part about her.”
For those out there – doesn’t there always have to be a few obtuse killjoys in the mix? – who insist that the woman often referred to as “The First Lady of Golf” has no business being mentioned with the game’s greats, allow her husband to serve as the first line of defense against that debate.
For him, she owned multiple roles besides being his wife.
Like sports psychologist …
“She was the person that I bounced everything off of. My father passed away at a relatively early age. I used to bounce a lot of things off of my dad and get his advice, and when my dad passed, Barbara became sort of my confidant. … I didn't always take her advice, as she will say, but I certainly listened to her, because she's a devil of a lot smarter than I am.”
… and swing guru …
“I walked off the practice tee one day, and she said, ‘Well, I see you fixed your crooked backswing.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘I don't know, but it looks different, and now it looks normal.’ I figured out what she was talking about, even though she didn't really know anything about the game of golf at that point in time.”
Jack’s stories about Barbara can stretch back more than a half-century or just mere hours.
On Wednesday, he related a story from the night before. He’d been watching his alma mater Ohio State play basketball on television and asked her to join him. She did – but for only a few minutes before she needed to craft a few handwritten notes.
“That's just constantly what she does,” he said. “She's always trying to do something for somebody else.”
This time around, it will be Barbara in the spotlight, not beaming in the background as she so often has over the years. She won’t be doing something for somebody else. She will be on the receiving end of the USGA’s most prestigious honor.
Four years ago, her husband kept this possibility a secret. That secret is out. Now it will be Jack silently beaming in the background while The First Lady of Golf finally earns some official recognition.