SMITH COLUMN: Family comes first for Nicklaus

Published 10:30 am Friday, December 24, 2021

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As you move forward with this treatise, you may wonder why it did not appear in the sports pages.  I suppose if it were about the accomplishments of the man who many believe is the greatest golfer who ever lived, then that would be in order.

Jack William Nicklaus, the esteemed professional golfer, was as accomplished as there is or has been.  In addition to winning the most major golf championships in his sport’s history (18), he has designed 415 major golf courses across the world, caught more fish and shot more game — from the bushveld of Southern Africa to quail in South Georgia — than many of the locals in those parts.

The thing that he was proudest of — being a good father — didn’t result in a trophy or a plaque for the wall.  This is about the Golden Bear’s life as a doting parent.

It begins with his charming and caring wife, Barbara, who is a world class mother and helpmate.  They formed a devoted family partnership when they were married while still students at Ohio State.  There was never a shortcoming and fissure in the marriage since loyalty and familial togetherness were always underscored with the highest regard.  They wanted a houseful of children and the more grandchildren the merrier became their ardent wish.

Barbara Nicklaus could have turned Job’s head.  Her patience has always been off the charts.  Early on, she was the supportive wife of a husband who is a headline making professional athlete and the mother of five proactive children, four of them boys with high octane energy. 

This required of her to not only be a world-class mother, she had to be imbued with remarkable leadership skills and extraordinary management flexibility.

She was an excellent cook and trail boss. She could improvise on the spot and had an open-door policy with regard to her kid’s countless friends.  If a half dozen extras showed up at mealtime, she managed with generous aplomb.

Early on in his career, Jack established a firm commitment of never being away from his family more than a fortnight.  Two weeks was the maximum, and in the summers, when the kids were out of school, they often joined their dad when he was out on the tour.

With his success, Jack bought a plane and that enhanced his family commitment.  If he were within two hours of his address in North Palm Beach, Jack would often fly home for one of his kid’s sporting events after he finished his round of golf.   Then he would fly back to the tournament venue for the next day’s play.

When grandchildren came along, family priority got top billing with the Nicklaus’s.  Jack’s annual calendar was peppered with grandchildren’s games meets and matches. Barbara had a scheduling challenge equal to that of those who put together the National Football League schedule each year.

One day in the early eighties, my phone rang. It was Jack who wanted me to know about his only daughter, Nan, and her interest in pursuing her sport collegiately.  She was a very good volleyball player, and he wanted to arrange for her to visit the Georgia campus. She came and enjoyed her tour. Her emotional attachment took root; she chose to matriculate in Athens and become a Dawg.  She turned out to be a Damn Good Dawg, in fact.

She married Bill O’Leary, a tight end on the Bulldog football team and like her parents, raised four boys and a daughter, Kelly.  They brought their kids to Athens periodically, wanting at least one of them to choose their alma mater.  They were down to the last one four years ago when Kelly made her parents day by informing them that she had Georgia on her mind.

When Kelly’s degree was officially confirmed last weekend at graduation exercises in Sanford Stadium, no grandparents were more excited than Barbara and Jack William Nicklaus.

A dozen family members and a couple of close friends flew up from North Palm Beach for the day which included a sprightly and engaging lunch at the Athens Country Club.  It would be appropriate to say that a good time was enjoyed by all.

The view here is that the most accomplished golfer the world has ever known, is just as proud of his children and grandchildren as he is of the record eighteen major championship trophies he has won.   

There are multiple alma maters in this family, but a week ago, Jack and Barbara Nicklaus were overjoyed to consort with the many “Damn Good Dawgs” in Sanford Stadium.  They passionately agree that grandchildren are not overrated.