The world didn’t take much notice about ten days ago, and neither did I at the time, but one of the world’s most respected human beings passed his 76th birthday on January 21st. I have no idea where Jack William Nicklaus was that day. Ideally, and quite possibly, at home in West Palm Beach blowing out the candles with his huge, extended family; but more likely on his private aircraft, visiting one of the nearly 400 golf courses that his company has designed since inception back in the late 1970s.
Even though he long ago retired from playing serious golf – much less professional, tournament golf – Jack shows no signs of slowing down. They talk about financial institutions being “too big to fail”… I think Jack is “too busy to retire”.
The point of this week’s essay isn’t to review Jack’s unparalleled record. As a golf fan, you probably know it all anyway. But having had a few experiences with Mr. Nicklaus over the decades, including very briefly at the Presidents Cup in Ohio a couple of years ago, I thought I’d share a story and perspective that you might find interesting.
In early 1993, a bunch of us consultants were planning the very first Canadian Skins Game for our client, RJR-Macdonald Tobacco, and their premier brand of cigarettes, Export ‘A’. The first and foremost decision to make was, who can we get to play in the Skins foursome? We knew it had to be a marquee group, or the event might not even secure a broadcaster.
IMG, the all-powerful sports management company, which owned the Skins trademark and therefore would manage much of the event, were playing a cat-and-mouse game about securing Greg Norman (then the world’s number one player) to play. Greg was the prime thoroughbred in IMG’s elite stable of athlete clients, and they spoke his name in hushed tones, as if they were speaking about the President of the United States. Each week we were told that they were getting closer to having a commitment from Greg, but it never seemed to happen.
Finally, in exasperation after weeks of this hocus-pocus, I chimed up in a meeting and said, “I think I can get Jack Nicklaus.” This was the equivalent of saying, “would ya mind if I called GOD, and see if he can play?”
Because I had known Jack, and in particular, his right-hand man, former Canadian journalist Larry O’Brien, during my days at the RCGA a decade earlier, I had already quietly put a call in to Golden Bear Inc., and been given good signals back. When I threw his name on the table, the IMG guys looked at me with a combination of scorn, derision, and disbelief, not to mention anger that I was upstaging Greg Norman.
But the sponsor said “sure”, and lo and behold, a week later, I came to the weekly meeting and announced “Jack’s ready to sign, and it’ll be a lower appearance fee than IMG’s estimating for Norman.” We signed Jack that day.
Emboldened by my coup, I then suggested that I could probably bring Fred Couples on board. (Fred, like Jack, was also an old acquaintance of mine, and a non-IMG client.) I thought IMG would take out a contract on my life for that one, but since Fred was the reigning Masters Champion and possibly the most popular player on the planet, they had to bite their tongues.
I called Fred’s agent the next morning. His initial reaction to my call was as if I was someone from the Southern Iowa Rotary Club calling to see if they could get Fred to come and open their annual Bake Sale. The agent had me on a speaker phone, and I’m sure I could hear him clipping his finger nails as he was talking to me. But when I told him we had Jack Nicklaus signed, suddenly I heard his chair bolt upright, and the receiver was picked up.
“You have Nicklaus?” he said.
“Yup,” I said.
“Well, why didn’t you say so? Let’s talk.” We had Couples locked up within 48 hours.
IMG never did get Norman to play in that inaugural Skins. To their credit, they got with the program and managed to round out the field with their clients Raymond Floyd and Nick Price, and that foursome – at the brand new Devil’s Pulpit golf club — really put the event on the map and on TV. The Skins Game went on to sustain itself for 20 years in Canada, a pretty remarkable record for a made-for-TV exhibition.
And in my view, that history started solely because of the clout and the prestige and the reputation of Jack Nicklaus. Well past his prime as a player, he was still the one golfer everyone wanted to see, and watch. And in the case of Couples, Floyd, and Price, the one they still wanted to compete against too.
I’ll write some other stuff someday about Jack, but for now, I’ll finish this piece by saying, albeit belatedly, and on behalf of all of us who revere you…
Happy Birthday, Sir.