Golf legend Jack Nicklaus is as passionate as ever about tennis

by: Steve Flink | December 12, 2018

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Widely revered as the greatest golfer of all time after securing a record 18 Grand Slam titles, universally respected across the spectrum of sports, and a celebrity who values making a difference in the wider world above all else, Jack Nicklaus is pridefully navigating his late seventies and enjoying his productive life enormously. But while the Golden Bear will always be synonymous with the sport he dominated during his prime years as a competitor, the fact remains that he has had an enduring passion for the game of tennis, ever since he started playing it recreationally in his thirties.

Just a few weekends ago, Nicklaus hosted the second annual “Fore Love” charity tournament which combines golf and tennis pro-ams, raising no less than $1.1 million for the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation and the Bryan Bros. Foundation. Among the tennis players who assembled in North Palm Beach and Jupiter, Fla. were Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan, Kevin Anderson, Andy Roddick, Sloane Stephens, Milos Raonic and Mardy Fish.

“The Bryan brothers have been good friends of Barbara’s and mine for quite a while and we have followed them and their careers closely," says Nicklaus. "They are a big part of what we are doing with their foundation for kids and with our foundation. We have only done this for two years but raised about a million dollars both times with no title sponsor. Over time we will raise some significant money for kids. I see us raising $3 to $5 million annually in the future.”

On his property in Lost Tree, Florida, Nicklaus built three grass courts in the 1970s. At one time he even had a clay court. He grew to love playing the game.

“I love playing grass tennis," he says. "I am decent, but not a tournament player. I am 78 years old now and I hurt my shoulder last year and have played only a few sets this year, so I did not play tennis in the Fore-Love tournament. I also use the courts at home to test grasses for golf. I have tested virtually every new grass to see how the wear is and how it grows.”

With his unmistakable affection for grass courts, it is unsurprising that Nicklaus loves going to Wimbledon to see the world’s premier tennis tournament. Does he see a parallel between Wimbledon and golf’s most celebrated tournament, The Masters?

“Wimbledon and The Masters are at the pinnacle of sporting events,” he asserts. “What they do at Augusta is terrific and what they have done at Wimbledon is far superior to anything else in tennis, but I have only been one day at the US Open and have not been to Roland Garros or the Australian Open.

"I like the air about Wimbledon, the reverence people have for it. Phil Brook [chairman of the All England Club] has become a good friend. I have gone to Wimbledon about 10 or 12 times, and will be going back in 2019 because it is Phil’s last year. I went several times as far back as the seventies when I saw Stan Smith beat Ilie Nastase in the final [1972] and I saw Newcombe win it [1971]. I would go down the weekend before playing the British Open golf.”


Jack with Roger Federer at Wimbledon, in 2012. (Getty Images)

More recently, Nicklaus has watched the Bryan twins compete at Wimbledon, and has been there for other big moments.

“I have seen Serena win Wimbledon and was there when Kvitova beat Bouchard [2014] in the women’s final," he says. "That was no contest that day. Bouchard didn’t have the power to deal with Kvitova’s game. I just love the atmosphere at Wimbledon and Phil invites Barbara and I into the Royal Box for a day. I often run into Rod Laver at Wimbledon. He has become a pretty good friend.”

Over the years, Nicklaus has made many friends in the tennis community, and has met most of the most prominent champions including Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. But his closest friendship now is with the Bryans, whom he has known since 2012. He treasures his relationship with them, and vice versa.

Meanwhile, Nicklaus appreciates that Mike Bryan now also has collected a record 18 majors in men’s doubles, winning 16 of those crowns with his twin brother.

“Jack’s knowledge of tennis is immense," says Bob Bryan. "He has watched a ton of tennis. You can discuss high level tennis tactics with him and he knows what is going on.

"Besides his family, his foundation and golf, his two passions are tennis and fishing. We got to know Jack through a mutual friend, George Bezecny. I was invited to come to Jack’s house to play in one of his series of his competitions on the grass courts there, and we ended up winning the tournament. Jack and Barbara are super supportive of Mike and I. They always want the best for us.”

For his part, Nicklaus lucidly remembers winning that tournament with Bob. 

“The trophy we won was from the Dollar Store," he says. "It was just a little plate with Jack Nicklaus and Bob Bryan on it, but it is one of my favorites. I have love it when other players have come by my house to play, including Kevin Anderson, Jim Courier, Mats Wilander, and John Lloyd. Venus and Serena have played here a lot warming up for Wimbledon.”


Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, with Bob and Mike Bryan. (Jim Mandeville)

Back in the 1980’s, Nicklaus developed a rewarding friendship with Ivan Lendl.

“Ivan came down to my house some time in the eighties not long before he headed over to prepare for the Australian Open when it was still played on grass," he says. "Ivan came with his coach, Tony Roche, and Billy Scanlon. We played for ten straight days—tennis in the morning, golf in the afternoon. I played in tennis with Ivan against Tony and Billy and we won a fair number of sets, probably as many as they did. They also did some drills on the courts and tore them up pretty good! Ivan has been a good friend for a long time.”

Meanwhile, Nicklaus has enjoyed his longtime camaraderie with tennis Hall of Famers Cliff Drysdale and Butch Buchholz, with whom he has played innumerable rounds of golf.

“They are pretty even," says Nicklaus. “Cliff has a really nice golf swing and hits the ball a pretty good distance. Butch has a really nice golf game. They are both about an eight or a nine [handicap]. They are great guys.

"I have a story about Cliff that I love. I never play anybody for more than $10 Nassau. Arnold Palmer was the only guy I would play for twenty dollars. I never wanted a friend to feel I was taking advantage of them, and that has been my policy all of my life.”

But the congenial Drysdale would not take no for an answer. 

“Cliffie comes along and says that we are going to play for a $50.00 closeout. He told me not to worry, that I was not going to lose a friend over $50.00. I asked him if he was sure this was what he wanted, and Cliffie said yes. Well, I have cupboards here in my house that are covered with $50 bills from Cliff Drysdale. I mean, I bet I have got $4,000 to $5,000 in fifty dollar bills from him sitting in those cupboards. But we remain friends. He is wonderful and has a great personality.”

Nicklaus, too, has a potent personality, informed by his conviviality, seasoned by his sophistication. His wisdom and passion are twin virtues. Shifting his attention from Drysdale to Mardy Fish, Nicklaus spoke about his astonishment over Fish’s golf game.

“I played golf last week at the Fore Love with Mardy, and he is the best non-professional golfer that I have ever seen play. We played nine holes and he drove the ball on every single hole in the middle of the fairway, further than I have seen anybody hit it who is not a professional. He shot 31 for nine holes. I said, ‘Mardy, what are you doing? You have got a talent and you are young enough to take advantage of it. You need to go play golf.’”

Fish told Nicklaus that he did play locally in Florida, but Nicklaus interjected, “Mardy, you are not getting any younger, and you have got ten years if you want to play competitive golf professionally.”

Adding the icing on the cake, Nicklaus told me, “I have never seen anybody with as nice a golf swing and as good a golf game that doesn’t play it professionally, or as a top amateur. I was flabbergasted how good Mardy was.”


Mardy Fish—among other current and former tennis pros, including Kevin Anderson, Flavia Pennetta, Fabio Fognini, Milos Raonic, Andy Roddick, Frances Tiafoe, Bob Bryan, Mike Bryan and Sloane Stephens—with the Golden Bear. (Jim Mandeville)

As Nicklaus conveyed his views so persuasively, intelligently and unabashedly, it was time to let him draw more comparisons between tennis and golf, the two incomparable individual sports.

Which task is tougher—serving for the match at 5-4 in the fifth set in a major final, or walking to the 18th hole on the last day of one of the premier events holding a one stroke lead? Nicklaus answered,

“In tennis, it is not just your own nerves, but the nerves of the guy standing across the net. You may not even hit a great shot, but the opponent might not return it because he is nervous. In golf, you are the only person that can control what you do. Golf is a little more difficult from that standpoint, because it rests totally and 100 percent on your shoulders. But, then again, it might be easier, too, because you don’t have to be perfect to make sure you par the last hole.”

Does golf has an advantage over tennis from the standpoint of the fans, who might prefer the shorter timeframe at the majors—four days versus two weeks?

“I think so," Nicklaus says. "But generally people don’t pay attention to the early round matches in tennis, unless somebody beats Nadal or Federer. We remember when Federer beat Sampras at Wimbledon [fourth round, 2001] that we said, ‘Who is that guy?’ And we found out. In golf it is compressed, but you can play for four days and win the tournament by one shot. Both tennis and golf have intense pressure, whether it is two weeks for a tennis major, or four days in the golf majors.

"It is a tough question to answer. It may be tougher for a golfer to win a major because you have so many players. In tennis, someone might get injured and you get a breather, but in golf you are not going to get 144 guys injured.”

As the discussion drew to a conclusion, I pointed out to Nicklaus that we all know what golf has meant to him. But could he clarify the importance of tennis across the bulk of his lifetime?

"I have really enjoyed it," he says. "It has kept me in shape. It is a great diversion. When I was playing golf professionally, I was never a gym rat. But playing tennis or basketball, throwing the football around or coaching little league baseball, those were the things I did to stay in shape. Tennis was by far the best of those sports for that purpose.”

Having said that, the beguiling Nicklaus addressed a larger and more lasting benefit of tennis that transcends the sport itself: “I now have a whole new circle of friends because of tennis. I have golfing friends, but I only see them when I go to a golf tournament. I see my tennis friends every Saturday or Sunday and sometimes during the week. Tennis has brought me a whole new bunch of friends. That is a wonderful thing to have in your life.”

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