It’s a bit disconcerting to watch Jack Nicklaus slowly walk into room, leaning on a cane. He is blaming pickleball, and yes, he is planning to play golf again as soon as his doctor allows his slightly battered 81-year-old body to swing a club again.
And while Nicklaus couldn’t play, he and Barbara, his wife of 61 years, shook hands and posed for photos with many of the appreciative participants.
He also had time for a 45-minute interview that touched on topics ranging from his enthusiastic endorsement of Donald Trump before the 2020 presidential election to his belief that Tiger Woods will find a way to return to tournament golf to his own infrequent play and his thriving worldwide course design business.
Nicklaus, arguably the greatest player in the history of golf with 18 major championships, surprised many in October when he tweeted a six-paragraph endorsement of Trump.
“This is not a personality contest; it’s about patriotism,” Nicklaus tweeted. “His love for America and its citizens, and putting his country first, has come through loud and clear.”
Nicklaus said Monday he paid no attention to the torrent of criticism that followed.
“I never got any blowback, and I’m sure I had a ton of it,” he said. “But I don’t pay attention to that stuff. I didn’t see any of it.”
Nicklaus said he wrote the tweet after Vice President Mike Pence called him shortly before the election and said Trump thought it would be too awkward to personally ask Nicklaus himself.
Pence “said the president knows you’ll do it, but he didn’t feel right about it,” Nicklaus said. “I told him I’d be delighted to write a letter. You have to stand up for what you believe in, and I think he did a really, really good job. Did he do it perfectly? Forget the way he talks, his personality. I thought he backed up what he said he would do.”
Trump, he added, “has been a friend for years, I’ve built golf courses for him, and to support him was not difficult. I’ve voted for Republicans and a ton of Democrats, too. I vote for the person and how they do. And I’d write a letter for the right Democrat, too.”
Nicklaus said Trump and Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, had helped get a provision included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (also known as the Cares Act) that provided funds for free-standing children’s hospitals that initially were not included in the bill.
“He went to bat for us,” said Nicklaus, whose foundation has raised close to $200 million for children’s facilities since 2004. “There were 28 free-standing children’s hospitals, and they got $50 million apiece. They were losing money during covid, and it really helped. … I couldn’t help but support the guy.”
Nicklaus is equally effusive about the prominent role his wife has played in their family foundation.
“Barbara supported me for the first 40 years of my [playing] career,” he said, “and I’ve supported her for the last 17 years with this. She started this all, and it changed my life. I know what it does, the good it does. I couldn’t have done any of it if I didn’t make a few four-foot putts. Golf has been wonderful to me, and now I can do things like this.”
Nicklaus has not been able to travel for the past year and a half because of the pandemic. That has prevented him from visiting his many course design and construction projects in the United States and all over the world, including in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Portugal and Scotland.
He even has a project in Turkmenistan, one of the most sparsely populated areas in southwest central Asia. It’s bordered by Kazakhstan to the northwest, Uzbekistan to the north and east, Afghanistan to the southeast, Iran to the south, and the Caspian Sea to the west.
“The president is a dentist,” Nicklaus said. “But he wants to bring sports to his country — hockey, riding, now golf.”
Closer to home, Nicklaus firmly believes Woods will play competitive golf again despite the severe leg injuries he suffered in February when his SUV swerved off the road near Los Angeles. Woods has reportedly been rehabilitating ever since, and Nicklaus said he hasn’t spoken with him in months.
“I know Tiger,” he said. “What he did at Torrey Pines [winning the 2008 U.S. Open] on a broken leg, what does that tell you? He’ll still be able to slap it around, and if he can putt, he’ll be all right. I don’t know if he can reach his old level, but I do expect him to play again.”
Nicklaus doesn’t play much these days, just twice this year, nine holes this month on vacation in northern Michigan, where he posted a score of 41. He also played Pebble Beach last month and insisted he barely broke 100.
“I can hit the ball 180 yards,” he said with a wistful smile. “It’s just too long for me.”
As for pickleball?
An enthusiastic recreational tennis player most of his adult life, Nicklaus had a shoulder problem two years ago and stopped playing. When a friend convinced him pickleball wouldn’t bother his shoulder because he didn’t have to hit overhead shots, he relented this summer and played.
“I tried to reach down to hit a ball, and the gritty surface caught my shoes and I went down, whacked both my knees, my elbows and my left hip,” he said. “The doctor said everything was in place, no broken bones. He said two to six weeks [to recover], and it’s been five.
“I was in a wheelchair for a week, then crutches, then a walker and now a cane. My balance hasn’t been good for a while; I use the cane so I won’t fall on my face. But not for much longer.”