On a day when Jack Nicklaus was lauded as the gold standard in golf and sports, the game’s greatest champion received a gold medal to go along with it.
In a ceremony bathed in emotion, the Golden Bear added a fitting honor to his lifetime of achievements—a Congressional Gold Medal—on Tuesday, March 24, in Washington, D.C. Recognized for his contributions to the game of golf and his service to the community and the nation, Jack Nicklaus received the honor in a special ceremony in The Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The event was led by Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, the Honorable John Boehner. Others to recognize Nicklaus during the ceremony were Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives, the Honorable Nancy Pelosi; Democratic Leader of the U.S. Senate, the Honorable Harry Reid; Majority Leader of the United States Senate, the Honorable Mitch McConnell; Ohio Senator Rob Portman; U.S. Congressman Pat Tiberi; CBS sports broadcaster Jim Nantz, and keynote speaker Jack Nicklaus II.
Nantz, the award-winning broadcaster who first met the Golden Bear in 1985 and then, in his first Masters for CBS, covered Jack’s iconic 1986 victory, opened the ceremony.
”He has been an American treasure, and our gift to the world,” Nantz said. “Thank you, Jack, for being the most prolific winner in the history of the greatest sport of all time, and for showing us what it looks like when one dedicates a lifetime to service to others, and a lifetime of devotion to family. You’ve let us all see it right up close.”
While Nantz set the scene, it was Jack II who set the tone for a highly emotional ceremony. He provided a heartfelt tribute to his father that not only represented his four younger siblings, but also gave everyone a glimpse into golf’s greatest champion and iconic sportsman. As one broadcaster said later, “Jackie not only brought the house down, he brought the House and the Senate down.”
“I remember several years ago sitting in the car with my dad,” said Jack II. “I was a struggling young golfer and I asked him, ‘How is it that you never seem to choke?’ Dad’s answer was simple: ’I am not afraid to win.’ “I responded, ‘Don’t you mean, you’re not afraid to lose?’ Dad quickly corrected me. ‘No, I am not afraid to win. Anybody can lose; it takes courage to win!’”
Jack Nicklaus II, who today is president of Nicklaus Design, also offered his uniquely special perspective of what it is like to be Jack Nicklaus’ son. Through telling the story of the 1986 Masters victory, where Jack II was his father’s caddie, Jack II offered up an anecdote previously untold to fans and friends of the golf legend.
“So, there I was, turning from the flag, and all I saw was my Dad,” he recalled of the scene on the 18th green. “In the midst of this moment that was all about Jack Nicklaus, there Dad stood, waiting for me with the most wonderful smile. His arms were outstretched to embrace me…. Dad had made me part of it. I knew I had Dad’s full focus. I felt like I mattered. I felt loved! That is what it’s like to be his son.”
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi described her first impression of Nicklaus. In a word, “Saintly.”
“And of course meeting Barbara,” she added, “I knew why. Hearing Jack Nicklaus II’s comments today reinforced that impression of this great man.”
As he presented the Congressional Gold Medal to Nicklaus, Speaker of the House John Boehner, known for his often-emotional reactions to great moments and events, was overcome.
“In golf, as in all things, it is not whether you win or lose, it is how you play the game,” Boehner said. “And no one has played it better for longer than Jack.”
Among the more than 300 guests to fill The Rotunda on that special day in Washington were First Lady of Golf Barbara Nicklaus, matriarch of the Nicklaus family, along with each of the Nicklauses’ five children and 22 grandchildren. Also present were select members of The Ohio State University Marching Band, performing the National Anthem and OSU’s alma mater, “Carmen Ohio;” past Congressional Gold Medal recipient Arnold Palmer and his wife, Kitt; golf industry leaders; and many of the Golden Bear’s longtime friends and business associates.
A very gracious and humbled Jack Nicklaus spoke about how the game of golf has impacted his career and life, and allowed him to touch lives all over the world. He did so by first relaying one anecdote.
“When my son Jackie was about 6 years old, he was asked what his father did for work,” Jack recalled. “He answered, ‘My father doesn’t work. He just plays golf.’
“And I did just play golf. I played the greatest game of all, and somehow over the course of 65 years of playing it, I ended up here before you today.”
Since the American Revolution, Congress has commissioned gold medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. Each medal honors a particular individual, institution, or event. Although the first recipients included citizens who participated in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, Congress broadened the scope of the medal to include actors, authors, entertainers, musicians, pioneers in aeronautics and space, explorers, lifesavers, notables in science and medicine, athletes, humanitarians, public servants, and foreign recipients. Jack Nicklaus became just the seventh athlete and third golfer to receive the honor.
The front of Jack Nicklaus’ Congressional Gold Medal, designed and engraved by Don Everhart, features a portrait of Jack Nicklaus, his signature, and the inscriptions “120 PROFESSIONAL VICTORIES” and “18 MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIPS.” On the back of the gold medal is the inscription, “Excellence in sport, promoting integrity and sportsmanship, and dedication to philanthropy and children’s healthcare, with a lifelong commitment to family.” The words bracketed by laurels—elements used in the logos of both his Ohio and Florida home clubs, Muirfield Village Golf Club and The Bear’s Club, respectively. In addition, the back of the medal has six stars representing his family.
Nicklaus talked about his humble beginnings in Columbus, Ohio; the values and life lessons taught to him by his father; and how honored he was to be one of only seven athletes to receive the Medal and to be able to join his long-time friend Arnold Palmer.
Nicklaus spoke of being able to travel the world because of golf and to spread the virtues of the game. He spoke of the global leaders he has been able to meet and to impact because “I just play golf, remember?”
He spoke of golf’s endless benevolence, and how the game honors and helps our military men and women, as well as how golf gives back more to charity than all the other major sports combined.
“We just play golf,” he reminded everyone, “and boy, are we proud that we do.”
Then, the Golden Bear’s speech reached a crescendo when he paid a personal tribute to his wife, Barbara, and his loving family.
“This last thing has nothing to do with the game of golf, but has everything to do with why I am standing here today,” he said. “On the back of the gold medal there are six stars. Five of the stars represent my children. Then, there is one larger, singular star, and that represents my wife, Barbara.”
He credited Barbara for being the guiding light to their decades of unparalleled philanthropy, most of which is focused on children. He beamed about the success of the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, and proudly talked about the newly named Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami.
The Golden Bear then closed with one last loving look to his wife, children and grandchildren in attendance.
“Yes, Jackie, I just played golf,” Nicklaus said. “But my life’s work was to make all of you proud of me. Hopefully I have.”