Mention the “Golden Bear” and even most non-golfers know about the man behind the famous moniker. Jack Nicklaus conjures up images of pure Americana, striding confidently across the golf course with tousled blond hair and one club raised in salute to fans. But while he may appear to be enjoying a relaxing Sunday afternoon game, a closer look at those blue eyes trained on the horizon reveal a focused competitor who, over a 20-plus-year professional career, won a record 18 major championships, beginning with the stunning 1962 triumph over Arnold Palmer at the U.S. Open when he was just 21 years old. He was a sports prodigy for sure—but even more, the Golden Bear was an all-around nice guy and a devoted family man. And fans loved him for it.
Today, his record of the highest number of wins in the Masters Tournament stands at six, along with an impressive five PGA Championships, four U.S. Opens, and three British Opens. Jack’s professional sport days are now behind him (he turned 80 this year), but the golf icon’s popularity endures with his various business ventures—Nicklaus Design has more than 400 golf courses open for play around the globe— and his commitment to giving back. Jack has directed his business expertise and love of children toward supporting his wife, Barbara, in her philanthropic endeavors, as she did him throughout his sports career.
“I was blessed with a great partner,” he says of his wife of 60 years, with whom he shares five children and 22 grandchildren, during a relaxing afternoon at their comfortable North Palm Beach home. “I think Barbara is probably the most selfless person I ever met. She never put herself first. I couldn’t have played golf and done what I had to do to be tough and competitive without her. She supported me through all the years I played and made it all possible.”
Trim, energetic, and possessing an easy friendliness rooted in her Midwestern upbringing, Barbara, 80, credits their happy marriage to mutual support. “It’s 95 percent give and 5 percent take, on both sides,” she says. She met Jack the first weekend of their freshman year at Ohio State University and changed her major from nursing to elementary education after realizing the intense nursing schedule might interfere with her burgeoning relationship. Recalls Jack: “I walked her to the bacteriology building for a class and thought she was nice. A couple of weeks later, she worked me in [to her life].” They got engaged the next year and married between junior and senior years. Barbara happily took on the role of the woman behind her man throughout Jack’s successful career on the fairway, racking up her own list of accolades along the way in a field that she’s extremely passionate about: bringing health care to as many children as possible. Among her honors, she was the recipient of the 2019 PGA Distinguished Service Award and the 2015 Bob Jones Award—
the U.S. Golf Association’s highest honor, bestowed on those who show “spirit, personal character, and respect for the game.”
Sixteen years ago, at Barbara’s urging, the couple founded the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation. Barbara serves as chair, cofounder, and tireless ambassador, guiding the foundation in raising more than $100 million over the years to provide care to children in every state and nearly 120 countries. The foundation also supports outpatient and urgent care centers up and down the coast of Florida (including Palm Beach Gardens) and a children’s hospital at Jupiter Medical Center (the De George Pediatric Unit). “This is Barbara’s vision, but it has changed my life,” Jack says. “Charity in golf always meant a game to raise money, but now it has become more personal. I’ve gotten close to some of the kids and stay in touch. It’s very rewarding.
One of the beneficiaries of the foundation is the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. In 2015, the hospital formerly called Miami Children’s Hospital (which celebrates its seven- tieth anniversary this year) was renamed in honor of the couple’s personal and financial commitment. “Bearing the name ‘Nicklaus’ has allowed us a greater level of integrity and a broader reach for the brand,” says Michelle Boggs, president of the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital Foundation, which she says raised more funds than ever in 2019—$23 million. “People ask all the time if [the Nicklauses] actually come to the hospital. What has been truly, pleasantly surprising to me is how often they come, at least quarterly. And when they’re not physically here, they’re hosting fundraising events in their home or going to various events. They’re both 80, and they’ll come here and be on their feet the entire day and are jam-packed with meetings—yet you see their level of empathy and caring when they’re around the kids. They hug them and their parents and take the time to talk. You can tell that’s the driving force for them. They just want to help kids.”
Of the many patients treated at the hospital, Jack cites the case of twin 4-year-old girls, Teegan and Riley, as one of the most moving. Born in Minnesota, Riley was healthy, but Teegan was born with one lung and half of her heart. “The doctors sent her home and said she wouldn’t live very long and that her condition was inoperable,” Jack recalls. “We got her in with Redmond Burke, one of the surgeons in Miami, who told us, ‘Inoperable is not in my vocabulary.’” Over the next few months, Dr. Burke performed six operations to rebuild Teegan’s heart. Then, says Jack: “The doctor told her mother, ‘Take this girl home to play with her sister!’ I’m sitting here half-crying every time I talk about this. Actually, I am crying,” he adds as he wipes his eyes. “We obviously get attached to the children. We don’t want to run the hospital; our job is to fundraise. But we can’t help but get
attached.” Adds Barbara: “There are so many success stories, but it takes just one to make you say to yourself, ‘Okay, this is why we’re doing this.’”
Although she has always taken an interest in children’s benefits, Barbara says it became “more personal and meaningful” to her and Jack in 2005. That’s the year they lost their 17-month-old grandson, Jake. In his memory, they created the foundation’s biggest annual fundraiser, The Jake. The two-day golf event at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter draws PGA Tour stars to Jack’s home club and brings in millions for the foundation.
Reflecting on their shared success in philanthropy, the Nicklauses marvel at how things have grown from the “teeny-tiny” foundation Barbara envisioned all those years ago. “When Jack first started out in golf, I was so proud of him, and I guess I wanted him to be proud of me,” she says. There is no doubt there; Mr. Nicklaus is clearly beaming with pride and admiration for his wife’s accomplishments. “Golf is just a sport; it’s just a game, although it turned out to be very important to me in life,” Jack says. “But I’ve seen miracles in the hospital, and what I’ve seen happen is much more important than a 4-foot putt.”