Barbara Nicklaus looks across the kitchen at the man she fell in love with more than five decades ago. He is standing by the island in the middle of the room, stretching lightly before his tennis match. Outside the windows, beyond the back porch, Lake Worth is glistening in the morning sun.
The Nicklauses have lived at this North Palm Beach, Fla., address since 1970, and the house is a comfortable extension of their lives. A large flat-screen television is tuned to Golf Channel. The sound system is playing Frank Sinatra. The family dog, Bunker, a chocolate labradoodle, is everywhere.
This is a big day in the Nicklaus household. The final round of the Honda Classic, which benefits several Nicklaus charities, is being played up the road at PGA National; Ohio State, the couple’s alma mater, is facing Michigan State with the Big Ten basketball championship on the line. And, of course, there’s Jack’s tennis game.
Barbara watches as her husband of 52 years widens his stance, bends at the knees and then rises again. He looks focused, even antsy. Jack loves tennis, and he plays to win. Same as always.
The back door swings open, and two of Jack’s tennis pals walk in. A fierce doubles match will soon begin. Bunker barks. Jack’s face relaxes. Barbara breaks into a knowing smile.
“We call this Golden Bear day camp,” she says.
On how many mornings has Barbara Nicklaus done exactly this—sent Jack into his competitive day? How many rounds of golf has she seen, miles has she walked, diapers has she changed? History says that Jack won his first major at the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont, but many argue it was the day he married Barbara Bash, the person who would soften and inspire him at the same time.
“She always allowed my dad not to worry about things at home, whether it relates to his golf or his business,” says oldest son Jackie. “She allows very little time for herself, but she’s always trying to help people. At high school basketball games, she was the one at the table keeping score. With 22 grandkids, she seems to be at every event. She has been the glue to our family.”
Early on Barbara understood what kind of Tour wife she would be. In 1962, the year after Jackie was born, she remembers sitting on the patio at Augusta National with several wives who were bemoaning the rigors of travel with young children. Major championships were far from their minds.
“We wanted to get home,” Barbara says. “All of a sudden this finger is in my face, and this woman says, ‘Listen, little girl, you had Jack long before you had that baby and you hope to have Jack long after that baby’s gone. Now you go out and be a wife.’ It was Elita Mangrum, Lloyd’s wife. When I saw her 10 years later, I said, ‘You have no idea what you’ve done for my marriage.’ ”
Barbara decided she would have to change her perspective if this lifestyle was going to work. She would provide support for Jack, handling with grace the stress of a profession in which a paycheck is not guaranteed.
Jack says he never would have won 18 majors without her. “My first year out on Tour with Jackie was a time when you didn’t have disposable diapers,” Jack says. “The portable crib was a permanent fixture in the back of the car with a diaper pail. It stunk like nothing else. That’s how we traveled. First six weeks in California, skip Tucson, then to Doral and the whole Florida swing the same way.”
Barbara laughs at the memory. “I bought a new portable crib, which I had in the box,” she says. “I think the airline charged $80 for it being overweight, which we didn’t have at the time. If he could have sent me home, he would have.”
Says Jack, reminding her of one more sin, “And the brand‑new sheets. ‘My baby’s not going to sleep on any hotel sheets.’ ”
At the ’62 U.S. Open, at which Jack defeated Arnold Palmer in a playoff, Barbara befriended Arnie’s wife, Winnie, and they walked together even as their husbands battled shot for shot. Barbara says Winnie became her mentor, showing her how to tackle problems large and small.
“Winnie handled her life, Arnold’s life and their life better than anybody I know,” Barbara says. “She would say to me, ‘You know, if I get mad at Arnold on Wednesday, I can’t say anything because I don’t want to upset him for the tournament. Then I’d forgotten what it was about by Sunday.’ ”
As the Nicklaus clan grew—Steve, Nan, Gary and Michael joined the fold, all by 1973—so did Barbara and Jack’s ability to handle the demands of their active brood. Only once in his career was Jack away from home for more than two weeks straight. And when he was gone, Barbara did her best to resolve all family crises before he returned.
One year a young Jackie decided he wanted to stop playing baseball halfway through the season. About 20 minutes before practice, Jackie sneaked out the back door, hopped onto a waiting skiff and went fishing. He never got bait on his hook. “I don’t know if she took someone else’s boat or came by car, but somehow she found me,” Jackie says. “It was, ‘You get your butt back here! You’re going to baseball practice.’ ”
When Jackie was 11 and Steve nine, friends of the family bought the boys a pair of BB guns for Christmas, much to the chagrin of Barbara and Jack. They let the boys keep the guns under the condition that they had to wait for permission to use them. Jackie and Steve didn’t. “We tried to shoot each other in the house,” Jackie says.
Barbara tracked down the boys, yanked the guns out of their hands and tossed them into Lake Worth.
Barbara is still at the kitchen table telling stories as Jack prepares to leave for tennis. She recalls that at the 1973 PGA Championship at Canterbury (where Jack won his third Wanamaker Trophy), Gary ran onto the 18th green and into his father’s arms after the third round in what became a favorite family photo. She remembers when Michael threw rocks into the creek and chased frogs at the ’80 PGA at Oak Hill (where Jack won his fifth). Back at Oak Hill for the ’89 Open, she remembers ducking away from the gallery ropes on the 8th hole to say hello to Laura Norman, then Greg’s wife.
“We finished the round, and Jack says to me, ‘Where were you on the 8th hole?’ I’m thinking, There are 40,000 people on that golf course. How in the world does he know that I was not on the 8th hole? I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. I had stopped to talk to Laura. But how did you know?’ Jack said, ‘I know how you walk, and I always know where you are.’ ”
A story like that, Barbara says, is why she has never felt like a golf widow. It is also why during the first round of the 2000 Memorial Tournament she stayed on the course to watch Jack play, even after telling Jackie next to the 14th green, “Don’t get alarmed. I have a pain in my side.”
Jackie recalls, “I was like, ‘Let’s get you in a golf cart,’ and she was like, ‘No, no, I want to watch your dad finish.’ ”
After Jack teed off on 15, Barbara cut across to the 17th and followed his last two holes. By the time Jack reached the 18th green, her face was a mask of pain. That night, she was hospitalized with kidney stones.
“Barbara is full of love, like her mother,” says Gary Player. “Her mother and father were dear people, and Barbara has inherited those genes. She does everything that is right, not only with her husband but raising money for charity, phoning people when they’ve been sick. All the niceties and decencies, that’s Barbara Nicklaus.”
Her life is bountiful, but Barbara has also experienced the pain of loss.
In 2005, Barbara and Jack’s 17-month-old grandson, Jake, drowned in a hot-tub accident. That same year the couple formed the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation to help the youth in the area. The Nicklauses have partnered with the Miami Children’s Hospital on a 23,000‑square‑foot pediatric urgent-care center down the street from their house. Each year they honor their grandson with The Jake, a golf tournament that benefits the foundation and keeps his memory alive.
“You never forget,” Barbara says.
It is late morning now. Jack is itching to get to his tennis game, and Barbara has finished a grande Starbucks white chocolate mocha (two pumps).
Today their remarkably busy schedule will take them to PGA National, where Jack will sit in the broadcast booth and discuss the Bear Trap and Barbara will stand on the 18th green to congratulate the 2012 Honda champion. Jack is asked how they’ve done it, accomplished so much, raised a family, kept their sanity and maintained their joy as a couple.
“You just have to figure it out,” he says.
Barbara agrees. “We survived,” she says.
The leader board at the Honda is packed, Barbara is told. Might she walk the final round for old times’ sake? Rory McIlroy is leading. Tiger’s in the hunt.
“Tournaments are not the same without my horse in the race,” she says.
How could they be?