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No woman has balanced golf and parenthood better than Barbara Nicklaus

Jack and Barbara
Brian Morgan / Getty Images
Jack with Barbara in 1984.

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.’ ”

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