With His Playing Career Over, Jack Nicklaus Transformed Himself Into A Full-Fledged Businessman

Thursday October 16th, 2014
Jack Nicklaus at Nicklaus Companies HQ in North Palm Beach, Florida.
Ben Van Hook/SI

Jack Nicklaus's office, on the fifth floor of one of the sleek buildings that comprise the Golden Bear Plaza in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is brimming with evidence of a life well lived. The expansive space is stuffed with hunting and fishing trophies, including the mounted snouts of three marlins, notably a 726-pounder he landed in 1975.

Mostly, though, the office is cluttered with family photos, his college sweetheart Barbara always by his side. One shot captures their five children and 22 grandchildren. Cut into the shape of a heart and glued to the picture is the headshot of a little boy. This is Jake, the grandson who drowned nine years ago at the age of 17 months. Jack hosts a tournament in his honor, The Jake. This year, it raised $2.2 million for the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation and featured a who's who of today's pros.

Peering out the window, Nicklaus points out Lost Tree Golf Club, where he and Barbara have for decades lived in the same nice but hardly ostentatious house. Nearby is the Miami Children's Hospital Nicklaus Outpatient Center, the area's second Nicklaus-funded pediatric care facility. A bit up the road is where a new full-service hospital will be built in his name; Nicklaus has signed on to help raise $50 million. Family, philanthropy, the great outdoors—Nicklaus's passions are all in this one room. But what brings the 74-year-old legend into the office most days (admittedly, often in shorts and boat shoes) is another driving force in his life: a burgeoning business empire. "I have no desire to retire," he says.

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The Nicklaus Companies is the umbrella corporation for his business initiatives, although for most of the past four decades golf course architecture was the primary product. It's his abiding passion, after all. Nicklaus Design has built some 380 courses in 36 countries. The current fee for one of his Signature designs is upwards of $2 million. "You can't believe how many [non-golf course design] deals Jack turned down through the years," says Andy O'Brien, a senior vice president at the Nicklaus Companies. "He has achieved great things," says Perry Ellis CEO George Feldenkreis, "but he's devoted himself to giving back. Jack Nicklaus is an emblem of the America I admired as a boy in Cuba."

All that changed when the economy tanked in 2008 and course construction ground to a halt. "I had to think about what else I was going to do grow the company," says Nicklaus. "My objective became to find a way to create a brand that was going to last beyond my lifetime."

Thus, in the last six years Nicklaus has licensed the Golden Bear logo to products such as hats (through a partnership with AHEAD), shirts (Perry Ellis), sunglasses (PeakVision) and shoes (Allen Edmonds). You can start your day drinking Nicklaus water (Aqua Hydrate), down a Golden Bear Lemonade at lunch (Arizona), wash down dinner with a $60 Nicklaus cabernet (Terlato) and sign your American Express bill with a Nicklaus pen by Curtis. (Jack can say "Don't leave home without it," in Japanese, thanks to a long-ago ad campaign.) All of this is possible not only because Nicklaus won a record 18 major championships, but because he also embodies class and sportsmanship. "He is a great American," says George Feldenkreis, the chairman and CEO of Perry Ellis. "He's led an exemplary life. He has achieved great things, but he's devoted himself to giving back. Jack Nicklaus is an emblem of the America I admired as a boy in Cuba."

When Nicklaus teamed with Perry Ellis in 2013, Feldenkreis felt "awed" to meet the great man but disarmed by his folksy introduction of, "Hi, I'm Jack." The son of a pharmacist in Columbus, Ohio, Nicklaus has retained a down-home Midwestern sensibility. "He never talked about the money," says Feldenkreis. "He cared about only two things. The first was that the product be affordable to the average American, not just the shopper at Neiman Marcus. And he cared deeply about the quality and integrity of the product." In the first year with Perry Ellis, Nicklaus apparel racked up $50 million in sales, and that number is expected to double by next year. Those are nice numbers, but Feldenkries really lights up when talking about his bond with Nicklaus.

(PHOTOS: Sports Illustrated Photos Featuring Jack Nicklaus)

"Our first meeting he asked me many questions—about life in Cuba, the politics there, how I came to this country. He was much more interested in my story than the business details. I was taken by that."

This personal touch underpins all of Nicklaus's business relationships. During a two-hour interview with Sports Illustrated, he often paused to recall the name of a long-ago CEO, or a dignitary who decades earlier had hosted him in a faraway land. The Nicklaus wines were born through his friendship with Bill Terlato, who has a home at the Bear's Club in Jupiter.

"Jack likes to do business with friends," says Terlato, CEO of his family's wine company. "It creates a tremendous loyalty—you want to do right by Jack." When course construction ground to a halt, Nicklaus says, "I had to think about what I was going to do to grow the company."

Nicklaus, a wine collector since the 1960s, was deeply involved in the creation of his four premium varietals. Having sold around 10,000 cases annually since 2010, Terlato will introduce Jack's House early next year—a table wine to be priced at $20 a bottle. Nicklaus's net worth is in the mid-nine figures, so the wine deal won't change his life. Why do it? "Because it's fun to walk into a restaurant and order your own wine!" he says. And so it goes, as Nicklaus follows his nose and extends his brand. A connoisseur of butter pecan, he's working on an ice cream deal. A noted dog lover (Gerald Ford once gave him a puppy born from Liberty, the golden retriever who lolled around the Oval Office), Nicklaus endorses VetIQ, a provider of pet medication and supplements.

"Jack is a man of many interests," says Terlato. "The things he comes across in his daily life and his career often intersect with his passions. When he believes in something, he's not shy about it."

Nicklaus remains most passionate about course design. Having opened an office in Hong Kong a quarter century ago, he was well positioned when China entered its recent building boom. Jack's relentless schedule includes three trips yearly to China in his Gulfstream IV-SP.

His empire building may show no signs of slowing, but Nicklaus does pause to reflect. He has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and appeared on a five-pound note in Great Britain. Through his philanthropic works he is bettering the lives of children across Florida and Ohio.

"All of this because I could hit a golf ball," he muses. Of course, it's more than that, but Nicklaus wants to finish the thought. "Isn't that ridiculous?" He smiles. "It's ridiculous and it's wonderful."

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