This story originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Elite Traveler.
Long ago nicknamed the Golden Bear, JackNicklaus, the now-77-year-old retired pro golfer, is widely recognized as one of the greatest of all time. Today he has a leading role in several businesses and in the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation. At the recent Presidents Cup,Nicklaus shared his thoughts on success, challenges and honesty with Elite Traveler’s Roberta Naas.
It was in early fall that Rolex invited me to the Presidents Cup — giving me private time to interview longtime brand ambassador and legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus. I don’t think my heart had a chance to beat once before I answered “Yes!” Mind you, I am not a golfer, but I am a journalist with a thirst to find out how people have climbed the ladder to success and how they fare later in life.
At 77, Nicklaus has yet to really retire. Sure, he has backed off the professional golf circuit, but he still runs several businesses, including Nicklaus Design, which creates world-renowned golf courses, Nicklaus Golf Equipment, and he continues to follow the sport and mentor today’s up-and-comers. An avid brand ambassador for Rolex, he has worn the same watch for 50 years. In fact, Nicklaus recalls how he got his in 1966, when he went to a Rolex cocktail party with Arnold Palmer, who was a Rolex ambassador already, and Gary Player. Rolex offered each of them a watch as a thank-you for attending. “I had never worn a watch before, but Gary pointed at one and said, ‘Take that one, it’s the best.’ It was a Presidents’ Watch [the nickname for Rolex’s Oyster Perpetual Day-Date model], and I have worn it every day ever since.”
Sitting in the Rolex suite at New Jersey’s Liberty National Golf Course, where the Presidents Cup was being played, Nicklaus seemed right at home. He recalled some stories about being on the course, but imparted to me that the lessons he learned there have carried him a long way. “The biggest challenge you face when you are rising to success is actually making your mind up that this is what you want to do and making a plan of how to go about it,” says Nicklaus. “The one thing I learned is that you have to understand who you are, what you do and you have to be true to yourself. Others know if you really believe in what you are saying and doing, and they follow those who are true to themselves.”
Nicklaus says that being honest, strong and true to himself is what carried him through in difficult moments on the course and in decision-making off the course. “If I had moments on the course where I was not sure what to do, when the pressure was intense, I would stop and look at the people who were having a great time and cheering us on,” Nicklaus says earnestly. “And I would remind myself, ‘This is what you worked for; you came out here to win and to enjoy the game, so enjoy the moment. This is what you live for.’ That would calm me down. I loved pressure, I lived for pressure. And in the end, I know I did my best. If it was good enough, great. If it was not good enough, I’d stick my hand out and say, ‘Thank you very much, good game. You got me this week, I’ll get you next week.’”
It is precisely that attitude that Nicklaus has had his entire life. Even to this day, he continues to insist that doing the right thing, being the best person you can be, is what really brings success.
“You are only going to be on this earth a certain amount of time, and if you want your legacy to continue, then it has to be because of who you are and that you did something that matters. The charity is a big part of that,” says Nicklaus. “I make sure that charity is involved in everything we do.”
In fact, Nicklaus says that he became deeply involved in helping children about a dozen years ago, when his wife, Barbara, expressed her longtime desire to do so. Together they formed the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation.
“For the first 45 years of our marriage, my wife was my main support team. She knew when I was golfing that I didn’t need confrontation; that I didn’t need to come home and have to discipline the kids, or other things. She took care of all of that, making it an easier road for me. Now, this was her dream, and I can afford to help her make that dream come true. Her passion is my number-one commitment,” Nicklaus says.
Just two years ago, after making a significant monetary commitment to the Miami Children’s Hospital, the hospital and its 14 adjunct outpatient facilities up and down the coast of Florida were renamed Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. “These are the things that will carry on the legacy for generations to come,” says Nicklaus. “Plus I am learning new skills. All my life I didn’t need to raise money, but now I find I am becoming a pretty good fundraiser,” he notes.
In addition to advising today’s rising champions in all walks of life to be true to themselves, Nicklaus also says to pay attention to the most important aspect of your life.
“The most satisfying part of my career was having a great wife and five kids, and being able to raise those kids so they knew their father was there for them. Today, all five of my kids know I am there for them, and my 22 grandkids know the same thing,” Nicklaus says.
“To have the ability to balance work and family, to not let the business end dominate, and to take care of the most important things in your life, that is the most gratifying feeling ever.”
Among his many accomplishments, Nicklaus, along with Gary Player, is responsible for one of the most important moments in golf history, resulting in a permanent rule change for the Presidents Cup. During the 2003 cup, played in South Africa, Nicklaus and Player agreed to end in a tie, and all 24 athletes on the men’s teams went home winners. But when I asked Nicklaus what was the best moment of his golf career, he answered: “Walking off the 18th green at the Masters in 1986 and having a nice big hug with my son right on the green.”