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Jack: The family man

Jack Nicklaus and family
Nicklaus Family Archives
Left to right: Barbara, Steve, Nan, Jack, Gary, Michael and Jackie Nicklaus in 1977.  - 

Jack Nicklaus is a pansy.

Don’t shoot the messenger. That’s according to both his wife and his daughter.

Of course, they mean it in the nicest way possible. Teddy bear might have been a more apt description, even a softie. But pansy works better in an opening line, so, thanks.

They mock his gruffness, because they know the family man – the husband who chokes up when talking sincerely about his wife, and the father who is wrapped around his little girl's finger.

Barbara Nicklaus and Nan O’Leary are the two key ladies in Jack’s life. He’s been married to the former for 57 years and been the father of the other for … well, you never reveal a woman’s age.

Did you know Jack even had a daughter? Apparently, many people don’t. Nan recalled a story in which she was at a tournament and one guy was pointing out Jack’s oldest son, Jackie, while another was saying he has four boys and no girls.

“Well, first of all, that’s not his son,” Nan chimed in.

“Yes it is,” Chump No. 1 replied. “How do you know?”

“Well, because that’s not my brother. And that’s my dad.”

“Well, he doesn’t have a daughter,” said Chump No. 2.

“No, I promise you, he does.”

They all have their stories, Nan, Barbara and the four boys. Births, mischievousness, life lessons. Some involve movie stars. Others are just one-on-one time with Dad. They all played co-starring roles in the Nicklaus Story. And it all started in 1957.

Barbara Bash and Jack Nicklaus at a 1959 Fiji party (Nicklaus Family Archives)

The Story of: When Jack Met Barbara

Barbara Bash first heard of Jack Nicklaus when she attended a rival high school in Columbus, Ohio. But golf wasn’t a big varsity sport back then so she didn’t think much of him, or, at least, about him.

They first met during the first week of their freshman year at Ohio State. Jack was with his girlfriend, Mary, and they ran into an acquaintance of hers, Barbara. The girlfriend had to split so Jack offered to walk Barbara to the bacteriology lab, where she was working to pay for school. They talked a little and Jack called her that night, asking her out on a date.

“She worked me in about two weeks later,” he says.

Mary, according to Jack, decided she wasn’t a one-guy gal, so that wasn’t an issue. And, in due, time Jack and Barbara had their date. They were together for a while, but it was short-lived. Jack dated another, but his family was keen on Barbara. In fact, they – Jack’s mother, father and sister – sent her a birthday card.

“My parents really liked Barbara,” Jack says. “So it was, maybe we ought to get back together.”

The two got engaged around Christmas 1959. And on July 23, 1960, they got married. Now the honeymoon, that’s another story.

Barbara and Jack Nicklaus at their wedding on July 23, 1960 (Nicklaus Family Archives)

The Story of: The Honeymooners

Barbara didn’t know it, but her dad had been saving a dollar a week since she was born. He had $2,500 moused up and it paid for their wedding and then some.

At the time, Jack and Barbara were in between their junior and senior years of college, neither yet 21 years old.

Barbara knew what she wanted to do for their honeymoon – or so she thought: Spend two weeks in New York City. Jack, being the good husband, said OK.

Now, Barbara knew what she was getting into well before they married. Even on their wedding day, Jack played 36 holes. Fortunately, the best man was his playing partner so he got Jack to the church on time. They spent that night at the Nationwide Inn in Columbus, checking in as Mr. and Mrs. Jones, for anonymity’s sake. The name Jack Nicklaus rang a bell in those parts, even back then.

Day 1 of the honeymoon, and starting from the hotel, they made it as far as Hershey, Pa. Jack knew a pro there and they stopped so he could play a round.

Next stop, New York!

That didn’t last two weeks, however, but only three days. They kept busy during their time there; though, it did rain. They stayed at the Astor Hotel. They had dinner at Sardi’s. They saw “La Plume de Ma Tante” and “Camelot.” Went shoe shopping for Barbara. Jack even drove the NYC streets in a convertible Buick Special.

“I was terrified,” he says.

And a little bored. They went to a jazz club and ran into a guy Jack knew. A guy who happened to be a Winged Foot member.

You can kind of guess what happened next.

“Barbara and I went to Winged Foot and it was pouring down rain. Absolutely pouring down rain,” Jack says. “And I’m telling you, there wasn’t another soul on the golf course, except Barbara, who walked with me and my caddie.”

That’s just a taste of the dedication and support Barbara has displayed during their near six decades of marriage.

After that, the two decided to ditch NYC for Atlantic City. You know what’s on the way from the one to the other? Pine Valley Golf Club.

Well, not really. But it can be if you want it to be.

Jack drove right up to the front gate, where he was recognized immediately. But there was one problem.

Jack, this is a stag club. Women are not allowed in here, he was told.

So, no golf, right? C’mon.

“This member very kindly let Jack play and took me around to some outside gates to watch him,” Barbara says.

Now, it’s easy to criticize Jack for being insensitive or selfish, but understand that Barbara didn’t mind. “We laugh about it now,” she says. “We were young and together. We had fun. We’ve always had fun being together.”

After Jack shot 74, they headed to Atlantic City. “We got up the next morning, we looked at this – this is the Boardwalk? We were out there 10 minutes when she said, ‘Let’s go back to Columbus,’” Jack says.

And that’s how a two-week honeymoon in New York City became a six-day trip, including two destinations and three rounds of golf.

Bob Hope and James Garner (Getty Images)

The Story of: Bob Hope and James Garner

When Jack Nicklaus II was born, Jack Sr. was in Cincinnati for a golf tournament. He had just won his second U.S. Amateur in 1961. Barbara was nine months pregnant and felt their first child might be coming along at any time but encouraged him to go.

Barbara called Jack the next morning and it went something like this:

Jack: Why are you calling me so early? You know I don’t tee off until 1.

Barbara: Well, I just wanted to call and tell you, you’re a dad.

“I think he fainted on the other end of the phone,” Barbara says.

If he didn’t then, he sure did later. Jack stayed to play – and won – and then returned home.

“Which one is mine?” he asked the nurse.

“That one there,” she responded.

“And I keeled straight over on a Terrazzo floor. Wacked my head,” Jack says. “I spent more time in the recovery room than Barbara did, I think. Matter of fact, I know I did when Nan was born.”

This was all an intro, by the way, to Nan's story.

It’s May 4, 1965. James Garner and Bob Hope have come to Scioto CC to play in an exhibition to raise money for Columbus charities. By this point, Jack is 25 years old and has won four majors.

Jack and Barbara invite everyone back to the house for dinner and the fellas retreat downstairs.

“You wanna fix the fire for some steaks?” Barbara asks.

“Few minutes,” Jack responds. “We’re gonna play a couple games of pool.”

Fifteen, 20 minutes later.

“Do you wanna cook the steak?” Barbara asks.

“Cook the steak?” Jack responds. “I haven’t set the fire.”

Barbara did. They’ll be up in a minute, Jack says.

Fifteen, 20 minutes later.

“Dinner’s on the table,” Barbara says.

“What do you mean, dinner’s on the table?” Jack responds.

Barbara cooked the steaks. The fellas finally re-emerge.

This is around 8 p.m. About an hour later, Barbara excuses herself. Forty-five minutes later, she’s not back so Jack goes to check on her.

“Because I’m not smart,” Jack says, “I wouldn’t have thought maybe something was going on.”

“I’ve packed my bags. I’ve called the doctor,” Barbara tells him. “I can take a taxi. I don’t want you to leave your friends.”

It still hasn’t quite hit Jack what’s going on.

“I’m getting ready to have the baby,” she says flatly.

Then it hit him. Like an Ali hook: Barbara is about to have a baby!

"Barbara is about to have a baby," Jack relays from his inner monologue to Garner and Hope and the guys with the American Cancer Society.

“You’ve never seen such a mass exit,” Barbara says. “They got outta there so fast,” confirms Jack.

Nan was born a few hours later, at 12:15 a.m. They were going to name their third child Robert James, had it been a boy – after Hope and Garner. But after two boys – Jackie and Steve – they were happy to have a girl.

And Jack, he passed out again.

“I keeled over for the first four,” he says. "I took my smelling salts and a pillow for the fourth one [Gary]. Still keeled over."

As for Nan, she named her fourth child Robert James.

Barbara and Jackie Nicklaus in 1962 (Nicklaus Family Archives)

The Story of: Eleta Mangrum

Jack made a promise to Barbara that he would never be away from home for more than two weeks, and, save for one 17-day trek to South Africa for a series of exhibitions with Gary Player, both say that promise was kept.

Jack didn’t want his kids not knowing their dad, nor did he like being on the road without his family. Whenever possible, they joined him.

In 1962, during Jack’s rookie year on the PGA Tour, Barbara tried to be by his side as much as possible, even with baby Jackie, born the September before.

Jack got into the field at the Doral C.C. Open Invitational – the first year of the event. He was down in Miami and Barbara was trying to join him. But being a new mom took some adjusting.

“I’ve got this [attitude of], ‘My baby is not gonna sleep in a motel bed. My baby’s not gonna sleep on motel sheets,’” she says.

“So I get off the plane with a porta-crib in a box, diaper pail, all of this. I was $65 overweight, which was a fortune back then. I think if he could have put me back on a plane and sent me home, he would have. But I learned quickly that motel sheets were fine and motel cribs were fine.”

For that year’s Masters, Barbara traveled alone, leaving Jackie back home. She was out on an Augusta National patio with a dozen wives one afternoon, as she says, “bemoaning the fact that I missed my baby.”

There in the corner, sitting and knitting was Lloyd Mangrum’s wife, Eleta.

As Barbara recalls:

“All of a sudden, she looked up and she pointed her finger at me and she said, ‘Listen, little girl. You had Jack long before you had that baby. And you hope to have Jack long after that baby’s gone [from home]. Now you grow up and be a wife.’”

Whoa. Barbara was taken aback. She didn’t know this crazy person. And for 10 years, she never saw her again.

“And when I did, I said, ‘Eleta, you will never know what you did for my marriage.’ I said, ‘Jack would call Thursday or Friday and say, ‘Gee, I’m really lonely,’ And I saw your finger in my face and I said, ‘I’ll be there tomorrow,’” Barbara says.

“[Her words] must have hit me at the right time. And I can still see her, with her finger in my face, as if it were yesterday.”

Clockwise from top: Steve, Nan, Gary, Jackie, Barbara, Michael and Jack in 1980 (Getty)

The Story of: The Nicklaus family

Barbara missed only two majors that Jack played in – not won, but played in. She missed the ’63 Masters, which Jack won, as second son Steve was born the Thursday after. And she missed the ’73 Open, in which Jack finished fourth, because final child Michael was born 10 days later.

“Without Barbara," Raymond Floyd says, "I don’t think Jack would have been as successful."

Jack agrees.

“As good as Jack is," Tom Kite says, "Jack might be the most over-married man that I know."

Jack agrees.

In 2000, Barbara was the Memorial Tournament honoree. She didn’t feel well, wasn’t quite sure what was wrong. But, not wanting to make a fuss, she didn’t say a word.

On Thursday, Jack was playing in the tournament and Barbara was following along as if everything was fine.

“I got around to the 14th hole and she finally turns to me and says, ‘Jackie, I can‘t go any farther. You gotta call a doctor.’ She had a kidney stone. She’d been trying to pass a kidney stone all week,” Jack says. “Took her to the hospital. Did lithotripsy, blasted the stone. She was back walking Friday.”

They've got a million of these. Jack and Barbara, and the kids as well, have been sharing their lives for years. They sometimes sound like partners in crime with rehearsed stories nearly identical in detail, they've told them so often.

There was the time that Jackie, a “projectile spitter,” as his parent referred to him as a baby, threw up in a coffee shop ahead of the 1962 U.S. Open playoff and singer Frankie Avalon yelled, “The kid puked!”

That time devilish Jackie encouraged 4-year-old brother Gary – who had just cut his own hair – to run out onto the 18th green during Round 2 of the 1973 PGA Championship. Fortunately Jack and his playing competitors had putted out. Jack picked up his son and someone snapped a photo. It might be Jack’s favorite.

Although, as Gary says, “I got to spend the weekend with the babysitters.”

That time when Jackie got stuck knee-deep in mud and Barbara yelled at Jack to come fish out his shoe with his 7-iron – during a round.

That time Jackie – it’s always Jackie – threw a club while Jack was preparing for the ’72 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and Jack, just as his father said to him years ago when he did the same, told his son he needed to act like somebody or he wouldn’t be playing golf again.

Those tough times of being a legend’s son, like when Gary was proclaimed “The Next Nicklaus” on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16.

“My dad was furious,” Gary says.

And when Jackie was working his butt off to get a Tour card and after extensive practice one day popped open a beer to decompress.

“These two people walk by and said, ‘Look at him. Nicklaus kid having a beer,'" Jackie said. "'You’ll never see his dad have a beer. That’s disgraceful.'"

And those real tough times, like when Steve’s 17-month-old son, Jake, drowned in a hot tub.

“Losing a child is the worst thing you can imagine." says Barbara. "And to lose a grandchild, you feel so bad for your children plus you’ve lost this precious little baby."

At the Nicklaus home in North Palm Beach, Fla., the same, modest looking, one-story house they've owned since 1970, "You've got a friend" can be heard over speakers near the swimming pool. Just to the right is Jack's office, where he houses a library of famous works and more bear figurines that people have sent him than John Nash could count. Subtly sitting on the bar counter is a spiral stand with family pictures hanging from top to bottom, from Jack and Barbara's parents to their 22 grandkids.

Inside the house proper, there is a multi-colored calendar. It's coded to show which grandkid is doing what and when, so that Jack and Barbara can attend as many events as possible.

For decades of fame and whatever fortune they may have, it's always been family first.

That’s why Jack would request late-early tee times – and get them – so he could fly back home to catch his kids’ games on Fridays, then fly back to the tournament site for the weekend. That’s why his kids caddied for him, well before his competitive days were over.

That’s why Nan would travel to Europe for their annual daddy-daughter trip to The Open. That’s why Jack hunts and fishes with Michael and Gary. That’s why Jack always wanted Barbara around, and Barbara the same.

Mike Malaska has worked with Jack Nicklaus for nearly 30 years. He played in the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, the first major following Jack's improbable Masters win. Malaska made it to the weekend and found himself in the group behind Nicklaus on Saturday, but he got to the first tee early so he could witness Jack up close. Mike had been warned: Don't look him in the eyes. Like he really was some kind of angry bear. But you know what happens when you tell someone not to do something.

Mike looks at Jack. Jack looks back at Mike. Mike gets nauseous. "It's like he was looking right through me," Malaska says. "It was very unsettling."

Jack Nicklaus could have that affect on others. Unless those others are family.

“People think he’s intimidating,” says Nan. “He’s a pansy.”