PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Jack Nicklaus came into the press room here at the Honda on Tuesday, as he does every year. He does it at the Memorial. He does it at the Masters. For decades he did it at every event he played. These sessions, they're always the same, and they're never the same.
A lot of players come to Jack looking for playing advice. They'd do well to ask him about how to handle this part, too. What Jack does is answer every question posed to him thoroughly, openly and originally. His intelligence and his playfulness have always come through. You probably know that. What you might not know about is his warmth.
That was evident here at the Honda Classic, which raises money for a variety of causes, including the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation, which provides funding for children's health services in Palm Beach County and beyond. Nicklaus was talking about how he and his wife, Barbara, realized years ago, when they were raising five kids near here, that there wasn't a nearby medical facility for complex children's medical issues. Nicklaus talked about the two-hour drive to Miami that families had to make in those days.
In time, Joe DiMaggio lent his name to a children's hospital in Fort Lauderdale and Arnold Palmer did the same in Orlando. Jack and Barbara saw the need in their own backyard. As he was taking his sweet time explaining all this, Nicklaus looked at the maybe two dozen reporters hanging on his every word. He said, "Do I see Craig here? Craig's been through that — a lot."
Craig was there, and Craig knew what Nicklaus was talking about. Craig is Craig Dolch, who has covered Nicklaus as a well-respected sportswriter for 30 years, most of those years with the Palm Beach Post. In the summer of 2005, Eric Dolch, Craig's healthy teenage son, was diagnosed with an extreme form of encephalitis, a neurological disorder and a form of epilepsy. Eric's life has been nothing like normal since then. He's in a wheelchair, and he cannot speak. For years, the Dolch family had to make the long drive to Miami for his highly specialized medical care. One day, on a drive there, Dolch's cell phone rang. It was Nicklaus.
He knew Nicklaus professionally. If Dolch had a question, Nicklaus answered it. Always. It wasn't like they were buddies. Something changed on this day. Nicklaus said, "I know how Eric is. But how are you doing?"
I could easily make this little write-up about the Dolch family and Eric's disease, and if you want to know more about that go to ericdolchfoundation.org. But this is about Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer of all time, as a human being.
"Nobody had really asked me that question," Dolch said after the press conference. It was almost like Jack gave Dolch permission to think about himself. Think of the humanity that takes.
Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher, spoke last week at the funeral of Gary Carter, the Hall of Fame catcher. He said that no person did more for the greater good of Palm Beach County than Gary Carter — except for Nicklaus. If that's not literally true — Palm Beach has some major, major philanthropists — it has to be close to true.
About five years ago, Nicklaus volunteered his services to fix up the old municipal golf course in North Palm Beach. A lot of people didn't like how it came out, but I happen to think it's fantastic, even if the greens are a little crazy and the bunkers are so deep you could bury elephants in them. It's tough. What do you expect? It's a Nicklaus course! Anyway, while it was still under construction, Jack gave me a tour of the course, just the two of us, in a cart, looking at all 18 holes. Jack couldn't possibly remember this experience, but I'll take it to my grave.
At one point, there was a heavy passing shower and Jack parked underneath a palm tree and we continued to talk. I said that it was generous of Nicklaus to devote all this time and effort and not get paid for it. After all, he's a golf course architect. I said something about how I was sometimes asked to write for school newsletters and whatnot and what a bother it was. I mean, I'm trying to make a living as a writer. Jack said, "Well, you've got young kids. I used to be like that. People would want me to play in a pro-am or something for free. You don't want to do it. But then your kids get older, they get out of the house, and then you're happy to start doing these things."
Nicklaus is 20 years older than I am. It was almost fatherly, the way he said it. He was prescient, by the way.
The Nicklaus family, like every family, has known heartache. A few months before Eric Dolch's health problem was diagnosed, Jack and Barbara lost a grandson, 17-month-old Jake Nicklaus. On Monday at the Bear's Club, a golf course here, there was a fundraising tournament called The Jake that raised $1.4 million for the health charities dear to the Nicklaus family. Think of how much good will there must be toward the Nicklaus family to be able to do that. What goes around comes around.
Barbara Nicklaus is on a thousand charity boards. Dolch asked her if she would serve on the Eric Dolch Foundation. She answered on the spot: "I'd be honored to." When Dolch organized an early fundraiser for the foundation, Jack and Barbara were first in line to help.
Dolch said he knew on that day Nicklaus called him, to ask him a question instead of the other way around, that their relationship would not be the same. In recent years, Dolch, consumed with dealing with his son's medical problems, left his paper and became a freelance writer. Nicklaus helped Dolch get a gig to write the history of Lost Tree, the golf-course development where the Nicklaus family has lived for decades.
"I remember the first time I met Jack, in 1982," Dolch said. "I was surprised at how short he was." Many people have had that reaction. If you're a six-footer, you tower over the man. "Now," Dolch said, "I marvel at how big he is."