As Jack Nicklaus turns 80, we asked some of those who know him well to give us a sense of what The Golden Bear has meant to them. Here are the responses of PGA Tour stars past and present who view Jack as a friend, a mentor, a father figure and a sportsman.
Greg Norman, Under Jack’s wing
Two-time major champion
“Jack’s books, Golf My Way and My 55 Ways to Lower Your Golf Score, were my instruction bibles. Without those books I’d probably be flying a jet somewhere. I’d have been a fighter pilot for the Royal Australian Air Force and then gone into commercial and private flying. Instead, I learned from his techniques and went from a 27 handicap to scratch and won my first professional tournament within five years of taking up the game.
I still remember the first time we met like it was yesterday. It was the Australian Open in 1976 and I’d just won my very first golf tournament the week before in Adelaide. Lo and behold I got paired with Jack and I was as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof. I cold-topped my first tee shot. I’d never done that before. I’ll never forget he came up to me in the locker room afterwards and put his hand on my left knee and said I had the game to play in America.
From there, I kind of invited myself under his wing. He’s a humble man. He set the standard for all of us on how to be a professional and to never put yourself ahead of the game. Originally, I was living in Orlando, but I grew up near the ocean and missed the water and moved down by Jack and Barbara to Jupiter Island in 1988. One day, Jack called me up and said his friend was putting his home on the Intercoastal on the market and that I should take a look at it. I went and checked it out, bought it and I still live there today. So, it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that Jack’s been one of the most influential people in my life.”
Justin Thomas: ‘Almost like he’s a father to you’
12-time PGA Tour winner, including 2017 PGA Championship
“The first time I met him was in 2000 at the PGA Championship. I was 7 years old. I remember he did a clinic. I was fortunate to go to the clinic because my dad was working for the PGA of America. I remember (Nicklaus) was talking to someone and I was standing there listening to him talk and I held my hat up. And I remember Mr. Nicklaus signed my hat and I was bragging in school the next day how I got the greatest golfer of all time’s signature. And everyone was like, ‘Oh, you got Tiger Woods?’ And I was like, ‘No, Mr. Nicklaus.’ Of course, no kid in my class knew who the hell Jack Nicklaus was and Tiger was the best at that time. I’ll always remember that.
“And now I have a relationship with him. It almost doesn’t make sense, almost doesn’t seem real. First off, he doesn’t need to take time to sit down with me or answer a phone call. But he genuinely wants to and it’s really cool. I reached out to him a lot more my first couple of years on Tour, when I was searching a little bit more and trying to figure out my way around. And I have a lot better feel about what’s going on now because of a lot of talks we’ve had. It’s almost like he’s a father to you. When I see him, the first thing he always says is he’s happy for me. And like my grandpa, he always goes, ‘Hey, great playing in Hawaii,’ or wherever, and then he’ll go, ‘Boy, you tried to give it away, but you really got it done.’ He always keep me humble, which I like.”
Rory McIlroy, The best thinker
Four-time major champion
“I always remember the first time I met Jack was in the Gardens Mall parking lot (in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida). It was 2009, I had just been put out of the match play by Geoff Ogilvy, and my dad and I flew to Florida early for the Honda Classic the next week. And we were in the parking lot and a gold Lexus pulls up beside us, and Jack gets out of the car and I obviously I recognize him and I introduce myself. ‘Hello, Mr. Nicklaus,’ and my dad calls him Jack. And I’m thinking, dad, this is Mr. Nicklaus. Not Jack.
“Jack has meant so much to me. That week we had lunch at the Bear’s Club and he gave me some advice then. Over the years, I live at his golf course, I practice at the Bear’s Club, I’ve lived there for nine years, and I see him a lot. And I’ve met Barbara and his children, as well. They are such a nice family. I think more so than anything else, they’ve kept who Jack Nicklaus is and all the stuff he’s done on the golf course and they’ve kept this normalcy about them. It’s endearing. They take an interest in other people, they do so much for charity, they are the epitome of being a class act and how you want to be. Jack and Barbara are great role models for me and Erica (McIlroy’s wife) in what they do for the community and charity. They are such a wonderful family.
“He has been the best at giving advice on how to play golf. Not how to swing, but how to play the game. He’s talked to me about his strategy and how to play the golf course and how to play the game and what he thought. The common denominator for him and Tiger is they are the best thinkers in the game. Just to pick Jack’s brain about that, and about preparation, and how he got himself around a golf course, that’s the best advice you can get. He was a master at playing the game.”
Annika Sorenstam, ‘Just normal and cool’
10-time major champion
Jack and Barbara both mean a lot to our family. They have been so generous and supportive to us. They have become genuine friends rather than just professional acquaintances. You can just feel the love they share and they always make us feel so welcome. One fond memory was when they had us to their house and the kids swam with Mike while I played tennis with Jack and his friends. I love how active he stays and his quick wit. He’s just normal and cool.
Paul Azinger, A great sportsman
Won 1993 Memorial Tournament
“Jack’s impact on the game of golf will live forever. He set many records we wanted to achieve. He has shown us all how we should behave. He’s shown the world what sportsmanship looks like many times over. Happy birthday to the Golden Daddy.”
Curtis Strange: A legacy for the ages
Won the 1988 Memorial Tournament
“All of us who followed Jack, both amateurs and professionals, have been inspired and motivated by the golfer and the man. His legacy will last for generations to come. Happy B’Day, Jack.”
Matt Kuchar: The intimidation factor
Won the 2013 Memorial Tournament
“I was hugely intimidated by Jack in my younger days. Took me a while to get comfortable around him. Great memory is having won the tournament and watching the replay and watching my kids high-fiving Mr. and Mrs. Nicklaus. Something I’ll have forever. To look back and see my kids at such young ages jumping up and giving Jack and Barbara high-fives. But he was one that I was nervous around. I mean, to the point he was the greatest ever, and what can I say to this guy that he’s not already done, accomplished? If you caught a fish this big, felt like he caught bigger fish. I was nervous around him. Fortunately have spent enough time, and Barbara is so great, so easy to be around, that our relationship has become one that’s much more comfortable from my standpoint.”
Rickie Fowler, The start of a friendship
Five-time PGA Tour winner
“I had seen Jack and been around him a handful of times, but I think the real start to the friendship, roughly eight or nine years ago, was when Barbara reached out to me about playing The Jake, which they host every year for the foundation. So Barbara had called and left me a message and I know exactly where I was when I called her back. I was playing in the Match Play when we used to play it at Dove Mountain and I was on the putting green and Jack answered the phone. So I said hi. We chatted briefly but kind of kept it short. And that was our first real conversation. I was like, sorry, Jack, I need to speak with Barbara. It’s a funny way to tell him that Barbara is the boss. She runs the show. Jack would say he wouldn’t be where he is without her. It’s an amazing thing to have a relationship with both of them. It’s pretty special.
“To be able to sit down and have lunch and give each other a hard time, to talk to him as a friend, is pretty cool. We all watched the highlights of him playing his best golf. You pinch yourself every once in a while, knowing you can talk to him about all things golf and so many other things.”
Gary Player: The greatest gentleman
Nine-time major champion
“He’s my best friend in the game. We played together probably as much if not more than anybody and all around the world. We competed fiercely not only in America but Great Britain, in Australia, South Africa and Japan. Everyone talks about what a great player he was, we all concede that, but I’d have to say Jack Nicklaus is the greatest gentleman I’ve ever played against. The way he accepted defeat was absolutely incredible. His father taught him a lot while he was growing up, including that he had to be a gentleman in defeat too. And he was a very good father. He’d go to watch them compete the day ahead of a tournament. I cherish the times that I have spent with him. Barbara has been an absolute angel, supporting to the hilt. Our wives made our lives.”
David Graham, A friend for life
Two-time major champion
“One of the unknown things about Nicklaus is how much travel around the world he did. I first met him at the Australian Open, which he won six times. I remember sitting on the end of his golf bag and watching him hit golf balls. I remember distinctly getting a phone call from him later that day asking me to get dinner with him and that was the start of a beautiful friendship.
“He had a set of clubs that were made for him by Slazenger that were a duplicate of his MacGregor set because he had an overseas contract with Slazenger. He wasn’t going to take them back to America. I asked if I could try them. He said, ‘Yeah, have them, please.’ Later on, Jack hired me as his chief designer at MacGregor. We co-designed the VIP irons, which I used in winning the 1979 PGA Championship and also created the Jack Nicklaus Limited Edition irons, which Jack won the 1980 U.S. Open and PGA with prototypes and I used to win the 1981 U.S. Open.
He was extremely instrumental in convincing me to play in America, and a big help to me once I moved here from my native Australia. As a matter of fact, he had a share in a golf course facility in Delray Beach, Florida, called The Hamlet, and he persuaded the owner of the facility to build (my wife) Maureen and me a house. I represented that particular club for a couple of years. We’d have dinner with Jack and Barbara at Lost Tree Village all the time. He and Barbara enrolled our children into school. That’s the type of friend he’s always been to me.”
Contributing: Steve DiMeglio, Adam Schupak, Beth Ann Nichols,