Beyond The Boxscore
Hello my name is Jack: Nicklaus opens up on grandkids, Ohio State's mistake, hispush for 12-hole PGA rounds & cancer
The greatest golfer in history wears a standard-issue name tag, same as everyone else at the cocktail reception. It reads "Jack" in big type with the "Jack Nicklaus" underneath, as if anyone needs to be reminded this is the man who won 18 majors and not some retired computer programmer from Pearland.
That's Jack though. If everyone else is sporting a name tag, darn if he's going to be the one to rock the boat. Or the fancy hor d'oeuvres plates at Tony's. He's in a side room of Houston's institution for River Oaks socialites and the city's most influential, but this Jack is anything but caught up in his own iconic power.
Try giving Michael Jordan a name tag at an event today and see what he does. Try putting one on Tiger Woods 20 years from now ... just be sure to duck the vile speeding your way.
Sports legends don't conform to normalcy. They don't willingly place themselves on the same level as the crowd — even if this particular crowd is a very select, small group of major donors to University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the No. 1-rated cancer hospital in the United States. They don't do freaking name tags.
Only Jack Nicklaus is, making it seem like the most regular thing in the world. Later in his approximately 36 hours in Houston, Nicklaus takes the stage in a giant ballroom at the Hilton Americas-Houston with Jim Nantz and ruminates on golf today in M.D. Anderson's "A Conversation With a Living Legend" — a luncheon-centered fundraiser that will rack up $470,000 for the hospital — for a packed crowd. But it's this quieter event on Monday night, when Jack is most apparent.
"We've got a middle school volleyball game to get to on Tuesday night," Nicklaus says. And the man who still rules golf as a course designer/influencer/savant (the 70-year-old Nicklaus has been named the Most Powerful Person in Golf for six straight years by Golf Inc. magazine) isn't kidding. Long before the last clap is heard at the luncheon Tuesday afternoon, Nicklaus is plotting a way to get the wheels on his private jet back on the ground of a Palm Beach, Fla., runway as quick as he can.
Only one snafu? George H.W. Bush heard that Nicklaus was in Houston and requested some face time.
"It's going to be a close call," Nicklaus' personal vice president for corporate communications Scott Tolley says.
Tolley means between the president and the junior high volleyball game. Nicklaus has an obvious respect for the Bushes (he campaigned hard for 43 in 2004 in the swing states of Ohio and Florida, two places where the Golden Bear holds plenty of influence). But this is a man who consults a lamented master sheet that lists every single one of his 21 grandkids' various sporting events when making out his travel schedule.
Nicklaus doesn't just want to be there for the "big" ones either.
This schedule is about girls volleyball, lacrosse and soccer as much as the football games of his one grandson (Nick O'Leary) who happens to be the No. 1-rated high school tight end in the country and an ultra-prized big-time college recruit. Nicklaus isn't shy in saying that Nick's "not going to Ohio State", his alma mater, which made the mistake of telling Nicklaus' grandson that he'd have to switch positions if he went there. It's clear that the six-time Masters winner is pulling for Florida State, even as he insists he won't have any influence on the decision.
To hear Nicklaus tell it, Nick is too stubborn for that. He explains how his grandson rebuffs even his own mother's trickiest attempts at finding out his college choice.
"He's like, 'I'm not telling you.' To his mother ... " Nicklaus laughs, clearly pleased by his grandson's pluckiness.
If football doesn't obscure other sports — at least not when his grandkids are playing them — it's still mighty to Nicklaus. "We don't travel on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during football season," Tolley says. "Sometimes, he'll make an exception on Thursdays if it's really important, but never Friday and Saturday."
No wonder why Nicklaus begins his luncheon stage conversation with unprompted NFL analysis. For the record, he's very high on Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, intimating that Schaub is on the type of path that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady took, though at a much earlier stage. He's not so sure about the road of his home team Miami Dolphins, the franchise he's had season tickets to since 1966.
Oh, history's greatest golfer will talk golf if you insist.
Nicklaus is one of the driving forces in bringing golf back to the Olympics in 2016 and he's certain the inclusion is going to transform golf into a truly global game, have dramatic effects in countries such as China and India. He argues that only 12-hole rounds could save the sport from seeing its participation plummet any further in the United States. He reveals that he's gone as far as urging PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to change the long-standard four-round 72-hole tournament into six rounds of 12 holes instead at golf's highest level.
"You'd still play 18 holes a day," Nicklaus says of the pros. "You'd just play a round and a half a day."
It would take something that dramatic from the Tour, Nicklaus believes, for 12-hole rounds to be accepted by recreational golfers, the men and women who just don't have time to regularly play 18, so they barely play at all. And often give up the game completely.
Yes, Nicklaus still has innovative ideas for the game where he made his name, one that ranks right up there with Muhammad Ali's in any discussion about the greatest living sports icon. But mostly, if you find Nicklaus in a quiet moment — in this case, in the private wine cellar dining room of Tony's, waiting for the ultra exclusive M.D. Anderson major donors dinner to begin (only 17 people total will be in the room for dinner and less than a half dozen souls are in the fancy cellar now) — you get a reflective guy who is no longer obsessed with that little white ball.
He barely has interest in recounting the 100-foot putt he hit recently that went viral on YouTube. "Complete luck," he shrugs.
At age 70, Nicklaus has an iPhone, but he only turns it on to make phone calls. Once he's done with a call, he immediately powers it off, so he doesn't have to learn how to do anything else with it.
"You'll text me right, Jack," Nantz cracks.
Nicklaus is in Houston — one of the only major cities where he's never won a tournament, thanks in large part to a freak caddie blunder — solely because of M.D. Anderson and the cancer fight. Nicklaus was on the verge of winning his first pro tournament ever in Houston when his caddie pulled the cup completely out with the flag on a birdie putt that was headed in — until it hit the pulled-out side of the cup, costing Nicklaus three strokes. He lost the tourney in a playoff.
Still, Houston's hospital has become the Golden Bear's go-to-hospital for life's biggest obstacles. Nicklaus estimates that he's sent eight to nine people close to him to M.D. Anderson to be treated for cancer and they've all had good results.
His own father died of pancreatic cancer at age 56 back in 1970, back before he could see his boy go full legend, back when there weren't many options in the fight against the Big C. "The told him he had eight to 12 weeks and he died after 10," Nicklaus says in the quiet of the wine cellar.
"This is networking," Nicklaus says, looking tired and every bit his years after the two-hour cocktail reception. "This isn't close to being completely unselfish."
Nicklaus yearns to help, kids especially. But he wants a connection to the best cancer doctors in the world, so no one close to him dies of the disease too soon again, as well. That's his story.
Soon, Nicklaus excuses himself before dinner. He needs to go back to the cocktail reception area to bring Barbara, his wife of 50 years, to the table. That's what a gentleman does.
"He's a man of great character," M.D. Anderson president John Mendelsohn says.
That's Jack. Just check the name tag.