Jack Nicklaus: Golf great shows ‘nice guys can come first’ in business

Story highlights

Nicklaus all-time majors record holder

Congressional Gold Medal in 2015

Nicklaus has built up business empire

Billionaire Howard Milstein key investor

CNN  — 

What does the man chosen by Sports Illustrated as the best individual sportsman of the 20th century do when his career comes to an end?

As legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus likes to put it: “Most people work all their life to retire to play golf – I played golf all my life to retire to work.”

In his own mind, the “Golden Bear” finished with truly competitive golf in 1996, signing off with two wins on the Seniors Tour, taking his career tally to 116 worldwide.

Although he continued to make appearances at the majors – tying for sixth at the 1998 Masters – and in the occasional PGA Tour event, it was the world of business and his charity work with his wife of 55 years, Barbara, that dominated his day.

Punishing schedule

The work ethic was always ingrained in a man from a family of German descent, and even now – having turned 76 on Thursday – he has a punishing schedule.

“I will probably die with my boots on, but that’s okay!” Nicklaus told CNN.

“It’s not about money for me, I think I passed most of my part of the company off to the kids years ago.

“I don’t mind dying penniless right now – but just not right now,” he adds with the laconic humor for which he is renowned.

His two great rivals in the “Big Three” – Gary Player and Arnold Palmer, who helped him transform golf in the early 1960s from a country club pursuit to a major global business with massive sponsorship and prize money – are also made of the same stuff.

Like Nicklaus, they all have varied business interests.

“We played golf and continued to play for most of our life, and the people you get involved with in business are people who like golf and followed us through the years and they really enjoy the association,” he says.

Business success

With a few metaphorical visits to sand traps and the rough on the way – the 2008 global financial downturn hit the golf industry hard – Nicklaus is proud of his business success; his companies sell anything from ice creams, fine wine and lemonade to the obvious areas like golf balls and equipment and course design.

Read: Nicklaus launches ice cream brand

Linking up with billionaire banker and investor Howard Milstein, who bought a 49% stake in the Nicklaus Companies group for $145 million in 2007, has helped him diversify his interests with a strong emphasis on branding, identifying his name to a whole range of products.