The secret to Jack Nicklaus’ success is relatively simple: there isn’t one. Sure, the GOAT was gifted with preternatural ability in his chosen profession (and a little bit of luck in pairing with legendary swing coach Jack Grout), but more than that, he possessed a nose-to-the-grind work ethic.
Nicklaus’ career as a professional golfer was never written in the stars, despite his numerous early successes in the game; Jack’s father, Charlie, wanted young Jack to follow him into the family’s pharmacy business. In fact, it wasn’t until Nicklaus won his first U.S. Amateur, in 1959, that he began to believe that a life in the game was a legitimate reality.
And it wasn’t until Nicklaus won the Amateur again, in 1961, that he learned a lesson in preparation that would carry him through his record-setting career — and life after it.
“I played in the national amateur in 1961 at Pebble Beach, I was 21 years old, and Deane Beman was a good player too at the time,” Nicklaus recalled recently. “Dean said, ‘Jack why don’t you walk off the golf course to get some yardages? You’d be so far ahead of everyone else.’”
At first, Nicklaus scoffed at the idea. He’d played Pebble Beach a handful of times and knew the course well, but he elected to listen to Beman’s advice.
“I went to the tournament site the week before, and I learned all about the golf course even though I knew the golf course,” he said. “I walked off the golf course at Pebble Beach, and I had this little scorecard and I wrote all of these yardages down.”
As the tournament week approached, Nicklaus was as prepared as he’d ever been to compete.
“When I got to the tournament, all these guys who got there on Monday were going through all the ‘how do I do this, how do I do that?’” he said. “I was under par every single round at Pebble beach and I won the tournament.”
Later, in 1988, Nicklaus learned a second lesson about preparation — one that came through failure.
“I was playing the PGA Championship in Oklahoma,” he said of the 1988 edition at Oak Tree National. “I really didn’t prepare very well for the tournament.”
You could understand if Nicklaus’ mind was drifting. At the time, he was in the twilight of his playing career and beginning to think about life after professional golf. Still, his performance wasn’t indicative of the standard he’d set throughout his career, and Barbara, his wife, knew it.
I’ve always put myself in contention because I was ready and prepared to play.
“That night, Barbara went down to McDonald’s for dinner and she came home and the next morning there was a glass of orange juice sitting on our table in this cup,” Nicklaus said. “It’s a Camp Snoopy collection, and It says on it, ‘There’s no excuse for not being properly prepared.’”
Nicklaus heard the message loud and clear.
“I don’t care what walk of life you’re in — if you don’t prepare, you’re going to get dusted,” he said. “You’re going to get beat. I’ve had this cup, good gracious, this cup’s been in my house now for 34 years.”
Sources of career-altering motivation often are found in the most unexpected of places. For Jack Nicklaus, that meant a practice round and a fast-food restaurant.
“I started preparing myself that way for everything,” he said. “I’ve always put myself in contention because I was ready and prepared to play.”
This article is the first installment of the Golden Rules series, produced by Jack Nicklaus in association with Generational Group. Read more about the partnership here.