Fatherhood: Jack Nicklaus Tees Up a Winner

By Peter Jeff
The Leadership Mints Guy

Here’s an idea on getting in touch with your humanity. Reading time: 6:11

            You may know Jack Nicklaus – the famed Golden Bear– as the greatest professional golfer of all time.

Jack Nicklaus in 1978

Jack Nicklaus in 1978

       But I got to know a very personal side of Jack Nicklaus –light years away from the golf course.

       And in the process he taught me a lesson in personal leadership that I never forgot:  Get in touch with your feelings –especially off the job– so that you can better focus your performance on the job.

Peter Jeff interviews Jack Nicklaus in Juy 1973

         It was 1973 and at 33 Jack Nicklaus was at the top of his game.

        The Golden Bear so dominated the professional golf world that three weeks later he would break Bobby Jones’ 43-year record for winning the most major golf championships. That’s a record Nicklaus still holds today 40 years later, a record that Tiger Woods still needs five majors to break.

          Back then,  I was a newspaper reporter for The Miami Herald in Florida. I worked out of the newspaper’s West Palm Beach, just 9 miles from Jack Nicklaus’ home in North Palm Beach.

 I Balked

        On Tuesday afternoon, July 24, 1973 The Miami Herald got a news tip from Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach that Jack Nicklaus would be visiting the nursery ward to see his fifth born child (Michael) for the first time.

        My editor assigned me to interview Jack Nicklaus at the hospital. I balked.           I told my boss that this was a very personal moment for a dad and his son and that a pesky reporter had no right butting in.  My editor convinced me otherwise.

         He asked me how long I had been reporting for The Miami Herald. I told him about a year. My boss then said: “If you’d like to continue working here I suggest you get over to that hospital. Thousands of fathers out there would be interested in seeing the parent side of Jack.”

Nervous in the Nursery

        Reluctantly, I show up in the nursery ward with my photographer. And sure enough there is the Golden Bear –all alone –in front of a glass wall overlooking the newborns. There were no security guards around him. No cameras. No entourage. No hangers on.

         Jack Nicklaus stood all alone with his thoughts –and feelings– for his newborn son.

         I stood about 20 feet away hating what I was about to do:  invade his privacy.  (I needed this job, my first out of college.) Finally, I get enough courage to interrupt Jack’s virtual mind meld with his son.

       I introduce myself and ask to talk with him about being a dad, about  seeing his newborn son for the first time.

“Jack, I have the smelling salts”

         Nicklaus’ glassy eyes glazed over me in a daze. I could tell he didn’t hear a word I said. I backed off.  He went back to gaga-gooing  at the window. Then I approached him again.

       Once again, I told him who I was and what I was doing there. I’m hoping he will throw me out.  (At least then I would have an excuse for my editors.) But Jack surprised me. This time he looked directly into my eyes and said: “Well,  what do you want to know?”

Wheelchair Ready to Go

          Then in the corner of the room, I see a nurse standing with a  wheelchair ready to go. “I have the smelling salts if you need it, Jack,” the nurse bellows. I am thinking this smelling salts comment must be some code for alerting  security.  But that didn’t happen.  Nothing I expected, happened on this July afternoon in South Florida.

        In the pending interview, I expected that Nicklaus would cite every new father’s cliche about his newborn son growing up to be disciplined, responsible and competitive etc.

Felt Queasy in My Stomach

       After all, Jack Nicklaus earned his Golden Bear monicker for his ferocious style of play more than his blond hair– a ferocious style of play that helped him already claw his way to four of his 6 masters, three of his 4 US Opens and two of his 3 British Opens.

         But I was surprised to hear Jack Nicklaus saying that he felt “queasy in my stomach”  when he saw his son for the first time. I was even more surprised to learn that he fainted each time he saw his first four children as newborns.

Nicklaus Always a Jittery Dad

         He joked that he spent more time in the recovery room than his wife Barbara did after delivering their third child, Nancy.

Jack Nicklaus in 1973 gets a hug from 4 year old son Gary

          At first I thought he was putting me on with all this talk of fainting.  I thought he might be having a little fun with a rookie reporter.  I made sure he knew  I was quoting him. He clearly saw my notebook.

          Then I asked him why he would want his fans to know that he got sick to his stomach seeing his newborns for the first time.  Nicklaus said: “It’s a good human reaction to have.”

Teaching Opportunity

          Jack Nicklaus clearly saw a teaching opportunity  to help other dads get closer to their children, to help other busy executives take time for their kids. The headline in the Miami Herald the next day: Nicklaus Always a Jittery Dad 

         But 20 days later Jack Nicklaus had no jitters on the golf course.  He won the PGA Championship and became professional golf’s  greatest player,  surpassing Bobby Jone’s record for most major championships with a then record  4-stroke margin of victory.

Father & Son

        Yet,  Nicklaus says his most significant memory of that victory is when his thenfour year old son Gary came running out on the 18th green and gave his dad a big hug after Jack had just finished the third round.

             Somehow I now know he was not kidding.

 Embrace Your Feelings

         After all,  Jack Nicklaus embraced his feelings. He didn’t try to mask them or hide behind his fame.  He could have played-tough-guy-for-the-reporter.  He didn’t.  He could have brushed off the reporter with a vexing   “call my PR people for an interview.”  He didn’t.

        He could have surrounded himself with an entourage of staff people. He didn’t. Instead, Jack Nicklaus showed up wearing none of the trappings of his celebrity.

       He taught me a significant personal leadership lesson: be true to yourself. Be real.  And it will pay off handsomely on and off the job.

      (Do you think Tiger Woods would have reacted the same way as Jack Nicklaus did to a reporter infringing on a very personal moment? Me neither.)

       At any rate, what would you have done? Let ‘s say you’re the business equivalent of Jack Nicklaus. You’re the darling of Wall Street. Your face is all over the magazine covers. You’re the most requested talking head on the TV business shows.  You’re at a the top of your game.

       It would take a strong leader to let his or her feelings show.  On and off the stage. In and out of the arena. Are you that strong to be that weak?  Think of Jack Nicklaus to show you the way.

           Today’s ImproveMINT

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