Jack Nicklaus is gently tapping his chest with the fingers of his left hand saying, “You can feel the pull right here; you can feel it in your heart.”
Nicklaus, of course, is one of the most successful golfers of all time – with a record 18 major championship titles, 120 tournament victories, and an illustrious career that landed him in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and with both a Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal hanging on his neck.
And that’s just the playing side of things.
There’s also a business side – a very successful one. From apparel to golf course design, the name Nicklaus is ubiquitous with golf. The Golden Bear has influenced millions of people through his achievements on and off the golf course.
But these days Jack Nicklaus and his wife of 56 years, Barbara, are building a different legacy. It’s one of charity – specifically the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation. And it’s why he’s not tapping on his chest talking about golf after playing a round at the fifth annual Creighton Farms Invitational he hosted on Sept. 14-15. No, Nicklaus is talking about the joy it brings him and his family to give their time, energy, and resources to a cause that means even more to them than the sport that provided the platform on which they have been able to change lives.
Jack and Barbara’s charitable work is focused on improving children’s health, and that’s why Children’s National Health System was chosen as a beneficiary of the golf tournament he hosts in Aldie, Va., outside of Washington, D.C. Now in its fifth year, the Creighton Farms Invitational has raised more than $3 million for children’s healthcare by giving donors the opportunity to play golf with some of the biggest names in sports.
Participating celebrities at this year’s tournament included musicians Rudy Gatlin and Mark Bryan (Hootie & The Blowfish fame); baseball greats Roger Clemens, Vince Coleman, and Rollie Fingers; NBA standouts Rick Barry, George Gervin, Kevin Grevey, Jack Marin, and Kelly Tripucka; NHL stars Grant Fuhr, Pierre Larouche, and Justin Williams; 1971 Heisman Trophy runner-up turned actor Ed Marinaro; former U.S. Amateur champion Nathaniel Crosby (son of entertainment icon Bing Crosby); and touring pro Tom Gainey. Between them and the donors who completed their foursomes, there was a lot of good will, camaraderie and fun.
But transcending the game of golf, just as Jack and Barbara have, the Creighton Farms Invitational is about children. Children like 7-year-old Lily Grace Rancourt, who stole the show with her positive attitude and energy at the reception and dinner the night before the tournament. Watch Lily’s story.
When Lily was an infant in China, doctors said she had no chance to live because of a heart condition that was considered fatal. But Jacques and Emily Rancourt of Northern Virginia adopted her anyway. And after no fewer than four open-heart surgeries that didn’t provide a much better prognosis, Children’s National called the Rancourts to say they would be able to do a heart transplant. They did. And these days Lily Grace is healthy and adjusting to life like any other 7-year-old. Her dream had been to simply “run,” and last year, she completed the Race for Every Child 5K—the longest distance she had ever walked.
“I have to give Children’s National so much credit,” Barbara Nicklaus said. “To see Lily Grace running around and to hear she ran a 5K, those would have been unthinkable for her just a few years ago. You just see one child like that and it makes your heart swell to help another. It means a lot when you see a hospital like Children’s National doing what they do.”
And maybe Lily Grace reminds the Nicklauses of their own daughter, Nan, who at 11 months old, could not stop coughing and choking. They took her to a hospital and through a series of trying tests, including a stint in an oxygen tent, the doctors and staff found a blue crayon lodged in her chest. They discovered it with an adult bronchoscope and the instrument eventually broke up the crayon and she dealt with some pneumonia. The doctors and staff at their local Nationwide Children’s Hospital saved Nan’s life and instilled in them a life-long desire to help children’s healthcare.
“When you have children, you never think anything’s going to happen to them. But something did,” Barbara said. “That crayon wasn’t going anywhere; it was not going to dissolve. We were so thankful. The staff at Nationwide Children’s was fantastic and they saved her life. That day, Jack and I just looked at each other and said if we’re ever in a position to help anyone, we want to help children. That’s kind of where it started.”
Ten years later, in 1976, Nicklaus founded the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide, played at his Ohio home golf club of Muirfield Village, just outside Columbus in Dublin. The tournament’s philanthropic focus was ahead of its time on the PGA Tour. From day one, it has supported Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and has been a prestigious stop on the Tour ever since.
But it was not until 2004 -- less than a year before Nicklaus would play his final round in a major championship -- that he and Barbara founded the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation to support children’s charities. Support provided by foundation has grown rapidly year over year and reached a significant milestone when Miami Children’s Hospital and its network of outpatient centers across South Florida (now totaling 14) were rebranded to Nicklaus Children’s Hospital.
Barbara has remained the driving force behind the foundation’s vision. She calls it her dream.
“All along, Barbara has been a wonderful wife,” the Golden Bear said. “She sort of stayed in the background during my golf career, because while I traveled to play, she had to be the support team and raise the kids. But when we started the foundation, I was done playing. So I said, ‘Maybe it’s my turn to be the supporter.’ And we started to raise funds and give grants to hospitals. All of a sudden, it became something we both fully dedicated ourselves to. It’s fun, worthwhile, and we feel good about helping.”
The work and impact of the foundation continues to grow and help others. And Jack Nicklaus says that’s the point. “We want to make a difference,” he said. “I think that’s important. Not everybody who’s in a position to make a difference does. Sometimes you get to a certain point in life and you look back and think you could’ve made a difference and helped people and wish that you had. Well, I wish I had earlier. Because now I am making a difference. Barbara’s making a difference. We’re making a difference in a lot of children’s lives.”
For their efforts, Jack and Barbara were inducted into the Ambassador David M. Walter International Pediatric Hall of Fame in 2010. Their company, the Nicklaus Companies, has also been recognized by Business News Daily among its list of the top Socially Responsible Businesses for the myriad products and services Jack and Barbara have woven into their business model to benefit children, including Jack Nicklaus Ice Cream, Jack’s House Wine, their line of AquaHydrate Water, Nicklaus Golf Balls, and others.
In March 2015, when Jack was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal -- the highest honor the U.S. Congress can bestow on an individual or group -- for his service to the nation, and promoting excellence, good sportsmanship, and philanthropy, he offered one special thanks to the person at the foundation of it all.
“Barbara always says that children are the root of the heart, but she is truly the heartbeat of everything we have done on the charitable side,” Nicklaus said.