Jack Nicklaus sits down for lunch at his Bear’s Club in Jupiter to talk gumbo, golf, and the joys of the Everglades.
Legendary golfer turned-golf course designer Jack Nicklaus at The Bear’s Club.
Jack Nicklaus walks into The Bear’s Club and shakes hands as if he’s no big deal, like he doesn’t own the place. Meanwhile, he was named Individual Male Athlete of the Century by Sports Illustrated, won a record 18 professional major-championship titles (six Masters, five PGA Championships, four US Opens, three British Opens), and is the benchmark by which all other golfers are measured. And he does own the place. Post-pro golf, he is startlingly busy—“I would go crazy if I wasn’t,” he says. He created Nicklaus Design, a firm that has crafted 400 golf courses all over the globe, and Nicklaus developed this one, in Jupiter. He has five kids, 22 grandkids, and still plays a lot (the last four days in a row). Nicklaus also devotes time to being a board member of the Everglades Foundation, which seeks to protect the remarkable ecosystem and restore its water flow to a natural state.
You grew up in Ohio but moved to Florida. Was it for the obvious reasons?
Have you played golf in Ohio during the wintertime? I needed to do that when I first turned pro, so I really moved down here in the winter before I played my first tournament.
How did you grow to care about the Everglades?
A fellow taught me the backwaters of Florida Bay [the southern fringe of the Everglades]. It’s tough to get around—I spent a couple nights out there that I couldn’t get back in. I’ve caught a ton of fish out there, taken a lot of my friends out. You get snook, red fish. I landed my first tarpon out there—125 pounds.
The clubhouse provides a welcoming atmosphere for members and guests.
What are the hurdles to Everglades restoration?
A lot of it is the sugar industry fertilizer issue [which pollutes Lake Okeechobee], and the blockage of water flowing south from Lake Okeechobee [which raises salinity levels]. But it’s a valuable resource. Seven million Florida residents, their water comes from the Everglades. And there’s value in all the people who come down here and visit.
I understand golf buttresses some of your other philanthropic work.
We came up with color-coded Jack Nicklaus balls—white, blue, and black—matched to your swing speed and ability. Some are engineered for distance and others for feel on the green. A percentage of every ball sold goes to the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, which is focused in South Florida. We have a relationship with Miami Children’s Hospital.
Nicklaus seated on The Bear’s Club’s back porch, with a view of the course he designed.
So you designed a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course at Baha Mar in the Bahamas?
Yes, it’s just about finished. It’s going to be a really nice golf course. It’ll have a few challenging holes, it’s got great views of the ocean, the back nine is very hilly. We’ve got one sort of island green out in the lake.
Do you ever design a hole and think it’s too difficult?
[Laughs] Many of them, and I’ve been right.
What is your favorite course to play?
Let’s forget my courses. If I had one round to play, I’d probably go to Pebble Beach. I think of the ocean, the environment, the history I have—I won the amateur there, I won several Crosbys, AT&Ts, and the US Open. I love Pebble Beach. For a place to go [visit], I’d either go to Augusta or St. Andrews.
The low-carb seafood gumbo on the menu was Nicklaus’s idea.
You own The Bear’s Club, where we’re eating. Any examples of your input on the menu?
Ninety percent of the people who come here eat our seafood gumbo. I basically try to eat close to the Atkins diet, a low-carb diet, so I said to Brian [Sode, the chef], “How can we take this gumbo and make it low-carb?” He said, “We can take the rice out of it, we can lessen the thickening, we can take the tomato paste out and just use tomatoes.” We switched over to Boar’s Head kielbasa, which has one gram of carbs. By the time we finished, we ended up with one carb and 100 calories per cup versus about 250 calories and about 50 or 60 carbs.
Does eating close to Atkins affect your energy level?
My energy level is much better. I’m over 20 pounds lighter, to start with, and better on the tennis court.
A slice of cheesecake based on his wife Barbara’s recipe.
Are there any other Nicklaus creations on the menu?
My wife is a fantastic cook, and she has Barbara’s cheesecakes on here, Barbara’s Key lime pie, and sticky toffee pudding. The Buckeyes are my wife’s recipe. It looks like a buckeye nut, but basically it’s a peanut butter cup.
Golf is a very mental game. What is the mental quality required to be a fantastic golfer?
I think you have to understand yourself, your strong suits and weak suits, and what you can do within them. You have to have the mental discipline to be able to restrain yourself from leaving that. I’ve always thought that was pretty easy, and that’s why I’ve never really worried about it. And you know, you’ll get beat sometimes. And if you do, you just shake their hand, put a smile on your face, and say, “Well done, I’ll get you next week.” That’s what you do.