6 life lessons Jack Nicklaus taught me that everyone can learn from

jack nicklaus and charlie mechem

Jack Nicklaus and the author have been friends and business partners for half a century.

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When I was offered the job of LPGA commissioner in 1990, I was excited and ready to accept but also thought I should consult a few people in the golf world to get their idea of what I should do. The first person I talked to — and he turned out to be the last — was my friend Jack Nicklaus. I met him in his office in North Palm Beach, Fla., and asked him whether it made sense for me to accept the post. He looked at me with those penetrating eyes sparkling and said, “You better damn well accept — I recommended you!”

I was stunned but obviously delighted that he felt this was something that I should do. Judy Dickinson, who was then the president of the LPGA’s Players Association was a good friend of Jack’s, as was her husband Gardner Dickinson, the great PGA professional. Judy had gone to see Jack and asked if he had any recommendations for the commissioner’s job. That’s when he endorsed me. If the Golden Bear felt this was right for me, that was all I needed to hear.

That was three decades ago, but I’ve known Jack for much longer: 50 years in all! The stories I could tell you from those five decades could fill a book. In fact, they have. Over the past several months — and in honor of Jack’s 80th birthday back in January — I compiled my favorite Jack anecdotes into a manuscript, excerpts of which you’ll find below.

I’m 10 years older than Jack — in fact, I turn 90 today, Sept. 12 — so perhaps I should have been the mentor in our relationship. Truth is, though, Jack has played that role far more ably.

Here, through our friendship and business partnerships, are 6 lessons Jack has taught me.

1. Stay focused on the job at hand

The first time I met with Jack to discuss a business relationship was in 1970. At the time I was the chairman and CEO of Taft Broadcasting Company, and we had decided that we wanted Jack to design and build a public golf course in Cincinnati, across from another of our properties, Kings Island amusement park, which was then under construction.

We agreed to meet in Jacksonville, Fla., where Jack was playing in a tournament. I met him and several of his associates for dinner and we worked out a deal by which he would design and build an 18-hole public course and a 9-hole short course, which in those days was referred to as an “Executive Course.”

With our deal inked, I attended the tournament the next morning and followed Jack. On one of the holes I positioned myself between the green and the next tee so that I would be sure and see Jack. He walked toward the next tee, looked me straight in the eye and walked on without a word or a gesture.

I was shocked!

When I ran into one of his colleagues a few minutes later, I related what happened and said, “Jack completely ignored me. Did I in some way offend or insult him at our meeting?”

His colleague laughed and said, “Charlie, Jack never even saw you. His concentration is such that he sees nothing except the next hole in his mind’s eye.”

That’s when I first experienced the power of Jack’s incredible concentration, which paid dividends over and over again through his career.

The author, right, says Nicklaus has “the true golf spirit.”

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2. If you’ve got a premium product, price it accordingly

As the years passed by, my involvement with Jack — and my company’s involvement with Jack — increased. One of our most notable accomplishments was producing the video version of Jack’s iconic book, Golf My Way.

I remember vividly a meeting in New York City in which we discussed the production and sale of the video. One of the principal questions was what to price it at. Most instructional videos at that time were on the market for $30 or $40; we naturally were thinking along those lines. Then Jack spoke up and, as always, we all listened.

He said he thought we should price it at a significantly higher level than other golf videos on the market. His point was that this was a premier product and should be priced as such. So, with some trepidation, but with full confidence in Jack’s view, we priced it (as I recall) at just under $100.

Golf My Way was published in 1974.

The video was and still is, in my opinion, the best instructional video ever made. It sold extremely well. As others have noted, it was responsible for millions of golfers learning and/or improving their games. It will always be a fitting tribute to Jack’s skill and ability to communicate his thoughts about the game.

There is a broader lesson here and it has served me well in a number of instances throughout the years. That lesson is to understand that a great product deserves a strong price, and to price it any other way tends to give the public a distorted view of its worth.

I recently came across an old letter from Jack, which speaks loudly to the success of the video:

3. Don’t be afraid to challenge the norm…

During my years as commissioner we often hosted dinner parties at our home in Jupiter, Fla. One night we entertained several LPGA pros and we asked Jack and Barbara to join us. Among our conversations that evening: Why did women tennis players fare better than LPGA players in compensation, media attention, etc. I told Jack that I thought the primary reason was that their major events were held at the same time and venue as the men’s major events. For example, at the U.S. Open in New York City if you were watching, say, Borg and McEnroe and wanted to watch, say, Navratilova and Everett, you needed only to walk a few yards into an adjoining court. This, I said, was almost impossible to do in the golf world.

Later in the evening it became clear that Jack had been thinking about our earlier conversation and he said to me, “Why couldn’t the men and women play events — maybe not majors — but popular events at the same venue?”

Jack Nicklaus watches a shot during a tournament.

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We picked up on the topic a few weeks later and Jack’s people came up with two ideas: the Diners Club matches in which all three tours were represented by several two-person teams and played on the same course at the same time, and the 3-Tour Challenge in which representatives of each Tour competed against one another. (The 3-Tour Challenge, sponsored from the beginning by Wendy’s, is still a popular televised event.)

I was impressed that Jack refused to concede that men’s and women’s events could not be played at the same venue and he and his people made it happen.

At the first 3-Tour Challenge, which was played in Columbus, Ohio, late in the match the LPGA and the PGA tours were tied and Dottie Pepper was lining up a critical and difficult putt. Dottie told me later that as she was sizing up the putt Jack walked behind her and said quietly, “Just knock it in!” He meant it. And she did just that! Just another example of the fairness and true golf spirit of Jack Nicklaus.

4. …but never, ever challenge Jack Nicklaus

The design at Camargo Club, near Cincinnati, is a 1925 Seth Raynor gem. I have been a member there since 1968 and can attest to the fact that it is a true classic. Pete Dye often said that it was one of his favorite courses in the world. Indeed, in his delightful book, Bury Me in a Pot Bunker, he wrote:

“When I am asked to name the finest examples of golf course design in the United States (other than mine) I always include Pinehurst No. 2, Pine Valley, Seminole, Merion and Camargo.”

Jack knew Camargo well because he played it when qualifying for both the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open and had nothing but praise for it. In the mid-80s I was responsible for putting together an outing for a Cincinnati business club and I decided to do it at Camargo and to invite Jack to join us. To my great delight, he did.

jack nicklaus after his win at the 1980 U.S. Open

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When he arrived at the club from the airport quite a few foursomes were already on the course so we decided to get in a golf cart and I drove him around to each group. The players were thrilled because they had not expected to see him. We reached the first group as they were about 200 to 250 yards from the green on a par 5. They all hit their shots with different clubs and quite different results — none very good! Jack then took out a 1-iron (maybe it was a 2-iron) and drilled four balls within birdie distance. For years, several people in that group were still talking about those shots.

But the most memorable part of Jack’s visit came after the round when Jack conducted a clinic on a terrace near the clubhouse. For an admiring (and cocktail-laden) audience, he explained and demonstrated several shots.

After describing the sand wedge’s loft and the curve of its blade, Nicklaus said, “With that you should have no trouble getting the ball into the air.”

To which a gentleman on the terrace waved his cocktail and slurred, “Not if you’re on hardpan!”

Without saying a word, Nicklaus borrowed a metal tray from a passing waiter. He placed the tray on the ground, put a ball on it and launched six perfect sand-wedge shots, one after the other. He then turned to the heckler and said, “Is that hardpan enough?!”

The author, middle, with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus

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5. Lose graciously (even if you didn’t really lose)

Jack invited me to play golf with him from time to time. Though I was flattered and honored to get such an invite, it was not something I looked forward to — not because of anything Jack did or said but because of my ineptitude at the game paired with the thought that the greatest player in the history of the game is about to watch me swing.

One match, however, turned out to be a delight from start to finish.

Marilyn and I were invited to spend the weekend at Nicklaus’ home at Lost Tree in North Palm Beach. Jack invited me to play golf on Saturday morning at the Bear’s Club with the surgeon who had done his hip replacement. Before we began, Jack came up with a game in which the surgeon and I were given a huge number of strokes — so many that it was virtually impossible for us to lose.

We did, in fact, win and when we went back to the clubhouse, Jack took out a $10 bill and wrote on it: You just whipped me. Nice going. Jack Nicklaus 3-01-03. He gave an identical bill to the surgeon.

Of course, there was no way that I would ever use the bill. I had it framed and it still hangs in my office — and always will.

6. Enjoy life’s little moments

After we finished that round at the Bear’s Club and had some lunch, Jack and I said goodbye to his doctor and headed back to Jack’s home at Lost Tree. As far as I know, Jack and Barbara have never lived anywhere other than Lost Tree since they moved from Columbus, Ohio, years ago. And, why not? It’s a beautiful place. Comfortable but not ostentatious. It is on the shores of Lake Worth where Jack keeps his boat, which he and the family use frequently. The most surprising feature, at least to me, are two grass tennis courts (a la Wimbledon). Jack is a superb tennis player and grass courts test the mettle of any player.

It was a fall afternoon and football was on television. Jack sat down in a recliner chair and prepared to watch. Most of his and Barbara’s kids and grandkids live close to their parent’s home. Within a few minutes after Jack sat down, the grandkids began to arrive and the next thing we knew Jack was covered with little ones — on his lap, on his knee and on his shoulder. They loved it and he loved it.

As I quietly watched this scene unfold, I wished that everyone in America who thought that Jack was stiff or remote or cold, could see this scene as Marilyn and I were seeing it. There was love and caring and great affection. This underscored what we had always known, and that was that the Golden Bear was a warm, caring family man. Throughout our relationship, this conviction has played out time and again.

Thank you, Jack, for being…Jack.

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