Best Seat in the House: 18 Golden Lessons from a Father to His Son

From growing up in the Nicklaus home to caddying for his legendary father at the 1986 Masters to learning how to design a golf course, Jack Nicklaus II has truly had the “best seat” in the house. Enjoy a behind-the-scenes look into his life with the Golden Bear and the special father-son lessons learned along the way from the boy who once answered the question about what his father did for a living: “Nothing, he just plays golf.”

Some additional story-telling and quotes from the author:

“The Divot”

The first time I ever caddied for my dad was at the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England, in 1976. It wasn’t by plan or design. I hoisted Dad’s bag over my right shoulder, and we walked side by side down the fairway. Although I had spent so much time with Dad on the golf course, it had not been as a caddie. I was like a deer in the headlights, and I was so overwhelmed. I was only a few minutes into my new gig when Dad quickly reminded me of my new responsibilities. We had walked about thirty feet when Dad stopped and asked me, “Didn’t you forget something?”

I was surprised by the question and had no idea what Dad was talking about. I turned and looked back down the fairway, thinking I might have dropped a club or that maybe Raymond Floyd had not hit his approach shot yet. I was confused and looked it. Dad pointed to a small chunk of turf that was bottom-side up in the middle of the fairway behind us. “You forgot to replace the divot,” he said, regarding the green turf displaced by his approach shot. Having let my new role get the better of me, I was embarrassed as I found the dislodged turf and replaced it. This was “Golf 101,” an etiquette rule I knew as a golfer. It was time for me to focus since I was in Dad’s office—and this was serious business.

“Marking Dad’s Ball”

When I caddied that first time for Dad, our relationship changed. He was Dad first and always, but I also quickly understood that he was working when on the course. Golf was his profession, what he did for a living to support his family. Out there I saw him as a competitor for the first time. With me on his bag, I also understood I could help or hurt his performance.

Mom and Dad had to be entertained by my first efforts since I was determined to be the best caddie I could be. And, boy, I overdid it at times. Like most guys on the PGA Tour, Dad always marked his golf balls with a pencil mark on either side of the number on the ball. It was something he always did just before he teed his ball up on the first tee of a round. It was a light press of the pencil lead, barely visible, but enough to distinguish it if there was ever a question of golf ball identification.

Dad never marked his golf balls during a practice round. So, after his practice round at the Open Championship, I wanted Dad to be prepared. I marked all the golf balls Dad planned to use in the next day’s opening round before we went to bed. At that time balata golf balls were the choice for professionals and low-handicap golfers. The soft balata cover allowed for more control off the tee and much higher spin rates on iron and wedge shots.

I was determined to mark Dad’s golf balls like no others. I planned to have the most thorough markings ever on a golf ball. Well, I went through pencil after pencil after pencil as I marked those golf balls. I can’t tell you how many tips of pencil lead I broke off into those soft balata covers. All I can say is there was no mistaking those markings on Dad’s golf balls—they stood out like pimples on a teenager’s nose. I am not sure how counterproductive my excessiveness was, but Dad’s brand-new golf balls had slight pieces of lead sticking out of them.

Dad never demeaned my efforts as he gracefully searched for balls in his bag that were not terminally damaged by me to use in the competition. He gracefully asked me to give the forever scarred golf balls to his adoring fans in the gallery. Everyone was happy—and, at the time, I didn’t know any differently.

“Dad Even Competes with Mom!”

My parents love to fish together, and early in their marriage, Mom would giggle quietly if she caught a bigger fish than Dad. But over the course of sixty years the giggling has become some pretty impressive trash talking. And there’s nothing funnier than listening to sweet Barbara talk smack. (p. 127)

According to Mom, she started feeling a little comfortable showing her competitive fire with Dad during a fishing trip to the Bahamas nearly twenty years ago. Mom had been used to spin-fishing and using bait, but Dad was helping her learn how to fly-fish. Dad was trying to be the great teacher he is and was offering lots of suggestions. Then, by day’s end, the biggest fish belonged to . . . Mom!

Mom said she didn’t say anything about having the big prize, but later that evening “Dad was pouting.” Now, Dad denies that he was pouting—his line was “I don’t pout, I get even.” When Mom pointed out at dinner that Dad seemed to have his feelings hurt, he mumbled something about the biggest fish. Mom jumped all over the moment. “Yeah, I did catch the biggest fish,” she said. “And I intend to do it every time.” (p. 128-129)

“The McDonald’s Happy Meal”

Millions of people have had the opportunity through attendance at tournaments or watching on television to see Dad perform over the four days of any golf tournament. Almost none of them, though, had the chance to see what really made him great. It was the multitude of hours he put in practicing the game and his unique skill set that really led to all those trophies. There is certainly some physical proof of all that practice. Golf pundits say my dad’s classic right- handed golf swing is unmistakable. They point to his hip turn, the lift of his left foot off the ground, and his consistent tempo. Those are just some of the components, practiced often, that helped him win.

What the pundits don’t know is that a McDonald’s Happy Meal was also part of his success.

Seriously.

Dad missed the cut at the 1988 PGA Championship at Oak Tree Golf Club in Oklahoma. Under normal circumstances, golfers are quick to leave town when they miss the cut and don’t advance into the tournament’s final two rounds. They don’t make money or get paid when that happens, so there’s really no reason to stick around. Dad, however, agreed to help ABC with its telecast of that championship. He stayed at the tournament with Mom instead of returning to Florida. I know it had to be tough on Dad because there is nothing worse than missing the cut and having to stick around to watch the competition.

Mom took Michael to McDonald’s during the third round, while Dad was on the air, where Michael ordered a Happy Meal and a drink. During that era McDonald’s was running a special that each meal came with a glass with a Peanuts character offering an inspirational phrase. Michael’s glass quoted Lucy saying, “There’s no excuse for not being properly prepared.” Mom was so taken by the phrase that she brought the glass back to the hotel and made Dad read the saying the next morning. The phrase had a profound impact on Dad, even at age forty-eight. He recognized he hadn’t been prepared for this tournament. For years, Dad had a regimen for course preparation, and he hadn’t followed it. Dad had his orange juice served in that glass to remind him about the importance of preparation. Mom and Dad laugh often about that morning.

Incidentally, Mom still has that Happy Meal glass.

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