The Essence of Jack


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You can point back to so many stories that capture the essence of Jack Nicklaus with his 70th birthday upon us.

There was the legendary Bobby Jones with his classic quote after the Golden Bear won the Masters in 1965 in a nine-shot romp over the runner-up tandem of Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

“He plays a game with which I am unfamiliar,” Jones famously said.

There was Nicklaus refusing to be intimidated by Arnie’s Army when he beat Arnold Palmer in a playoff to win the U.S. Open as a rookie in Palmer’s Pennsylvania backyard at Oakmont in 1962.

“They treated him like a dog,” Player said.

There was the improbable Masters triumph of 1986, the last time Nicklaus would conjur all his powers in a major championship to claim his 18th professional major at 46.

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“That I could still summon what I had back when, that I could still use it coming down the stretch, that was special for me,” Nicklaus said.

There are so many stories that capture the heart of the man, but my favorite is the one that makes him look as fragile and human as the rest of us.

It’s about what overwhelmed him in life.

It’s about how the births of his children literally floored him.

At the Nicklaus Museum on the Ohio State University campus, there’s a story documented among several exhibits dedicated to his wife, Barbara, and the couple’s five children. It’s a story about the importance of family in Nicklaus’ life.

“Jack fainted at the sight of each newborn child,” reads an inscription in the family section. “He was out for 15 minutes when Nan was born. Their doctor joked that Jack spent more time in the recovery room than Barbara.”

Truth be told, Nicklaus didn’t faint at the birth of all of his children, just the first four. This is how he once told the story:

“I was in Cincinnati when Jackie was born [in 1961]. Barbara called me, and I went back to Columbus. I went to the hospital, and they brought Jackie out and I keeled over.

“The second was Steve [in 1963]. They brought Steve out in the waiting room, and I was on the carpet.

“The third was Nan [in 1965]. They knew what was going to happen, so they had two people catch me when they brought her out.

“The fourth was Gary [in 1969]. I went to the hospital with a pillow, smelling salts, everything. I looked at him and, bam, I’m out again.

“The fifth was Michael [in 1973]. I looked at him and nothing happened. I didn’t faint. I figured that must be time to call an end to it.”

Nicklaus’ devotion to his family is a measure of the man that goes beyond his championship record. He reaches two milestone dates this year that aren’t about golf. He turns 70 on Thursday and he celebrates 50 years of marriage to Barbara on July 23.

The shock of what’s happening to Tiger Woods makes sportswriters wary of putting the words family and man in the same sentence, much less putting them together, no matter who they’re writing about. As wiser men have written, who can really know the heart? Nicklaus, though, is a model with Barbara so long at his side.

“For us fathers on Tour,” four-time PGA Tour winner Billy Andrade once told me, “Jack’s our role model in how to balance career and family.”

Nicklaus’ heart for family speaks to us by virtue of the fact that through almost 50 years of marriage he has always been there for Barbara and his children in the most important moments of their lives. They’ve found him as reliable and dependable in their most meaningful moments as he was over any putt that meant something.

Nicklaus might have passed out at the births of his children, but he was there for them. He was there for so many of his children’s special activities. He was a presence at school auditoriums, on the sidelines of youth football games and in the stands at junior baseball and basketball games.

There’s evidence of the extreme family devotion in the fact that even today four of the five Nicklaus children live within 10 minutes of Jack and Barbara, who still reside in the home they built 40 years ago at Lost Tree Village in North Palm Beach.

“I don’t think he ever missed one of my football games, and very few of my basketball games,” Michael Nicklaus, Jack’s youngest child, told me a few years ago. “He was there whenever we wanted him to be there. To be at the top of the game the way he was, and to do it without sacrificing his commitment to family, I don’t think I appreciated what that took as much then as I do now.”

Jack and Barbara met as freshmen at Ohio State and married before their senior years. After Nicklaus joined the PGA Tour, he promised his wife he would never play more than two weeks in a row if it meant staying away from his family. The couple once left their children for 17 days on a vacation to South Africa, but Nicklaus kept his promise.

Jackie, the oldest at 48 now, told me the effort his father made to see him and his brother, Steve, play a high school football impressed him as much as any effort his father made to win a golf tournament.

Back when Jackie and Steve played football for the Benjamin School in North Palm Beach, their father was playing the Firestone Invitational. After the second round, Jack flew out of Ohio and back to Florida to see their big game at Belle Glade.

“We won, a huge win for us against cross-county rivals, and I'll never forget him giving us these big hugs,” Jackie said. “We were all sweaty, and he was all sweaty, and we were all so excited. He left after the game to fly back to Firestone.”

That story captures the essence of Nicklaus as well as any.