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Men'sWeek issue 03/06/2014

Jack Nicklaus gives new meaning to the words hands-on.

This story first appeared in the March 6, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The man widely viewed as golf’s greatest player, now 74, can tick off the licensee, the design aesthetic and even the fabric content of his apparel offerings through the years, starting with Revere in Boston in 1961 to Hartmarx in 1967 and now Perry Ellis International.

PEI acquired the license earlier this year and the merchandise will be introduced at 470 J.C. Penney stores on Friday. It will roll out to 600 units for fall.

According to Howard Milstein, who bought a minority interest in the golfer’s Nicklaus Cos. in 2007, apparel sales alone are expected to eventually become a $1 billion business. Already, there are 900 Jack Nicklaus boutiques in Japan, bringing in $100 million in sales, and another 100 in South Korea, which account for an additional $50 million in volume. The company is seeking a partner in China as well, as it strives to reach its lofty goal.

Milstein believes the U.S. market can bring in $300 million to $400 million, starting with Penney’s and then expanding to other retailers and channels of distribution as the label creates a lifestyle brand, one that will include everything from sport coats and dress pants to cashmere sweaters and wovens.

Taking time out from last weekend’s Honda Classic at the PGA National Champion Course he designed in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Nicklaus said he was “very pleased” with the new relationship with PEI and its work to “revive” the label in America.

Over the years, Nicklaus has seen golf style come full-circle. “We had loud pants and wore wide belts — just like today,” he said with a laugh. “We haven’t gotten to bell-bottoms yet, but I’m sure we will.” Sweaters have remained “fairly consistent,” but the overall fit has changed and is now much slimmer.

He said he admires the style of some of the younger golfers such as Rickie Fowler, who is known for wearing bright colors and oversize hats from his sponsor, Puma. “I have one grandson who wants to wear everything Rickie wears,” Nicklaus said.

He also pointed to brands such as Under Armour, Peter Millar and Fairway & Greene as trendsetters. “And we’re trying to do the same by partnering with J.C. Penney.”

John Tighe, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s for J.C. Penney Co. Inc., believes there’s a lot of potential for the Nicklaus brand. “Golf is a big, growing segment of the industry and we’ve been underserved,” he said. Right now, Penney’s primary offering is through PGA Tour merchandise, also produced by PEI. But the Nicklaus merchandise offers “youthful styling that is sharp and clean, and is a great way to reach guys.” He said the floors will include graphics of Nicklaus and his accomplishments on the course over the years — he has 118 professional tournament victories and a record 18 major championship titles including six Masters, five PGA Championships, four U.S. Opens and three British Opens, and is only one of five golfers to have won all four of the sport’s modern majors, known as the Grand Slam.

Although Penney’s won’t install traditional hard shops, there will be mannequins, wrap fixtures and other merchandising elements in stores. The merchandise includes shorts, pants, polos and layering pieces, many with wicking and stretch attributes. “It’s a tight collection but we’ll expand it for fall,” Tighe said.

Price points will range from $24.99 to $34.99. “The styling and pricing should be good for our core customer and his budget,” Tighe said.

Over the past few months, Penney’s has been working to “pull together beautiful branded elements in men’s, and this spring, golf is the next initiative,” he said. “We’ll be focusing on the active side of the floor. Jack is a great partner and the all-time greatest golfer and he’s fully engaged in this project.”

Nicklaus said that he’s always been intimately involved with everything that has his name on it: “If I don’t know about it, shame on me.” Although the plan was to “retire and fade into the sunset” in 2007 when he sold 49 percent of his company to Milstein, “it didn’t work out that way. It wouldn’t be fair to him, and my family still owns 51 percent so I have to make sure the business works properly and moves forward.”

He’s still active in golf course design, including many in the Far East, and travels extensively around the world. In fact, he has designed over 300 courses in 36 countries. One of his most recent ventures is the design of a line of golf balls. “You look at the shelf at a pro shop and the balls have lots of numbers on them. They mean nothing to the average person. A lot go by swing speed, but less than 10 percent of people know their swing speed. But they do know what tee they play from.” So the balls are either black, blue or white to replicate the color of the different tee boxes on course.

“We’re trying to simplify things,” he said. “And we’re doing the same thing with clothing.”

Oscar Feldenkreis, chief operating officer of PEI, said the plan for the Nicklaus label is to eventually expand it into a “full lifestyle brand” and his company is talking to Penney’s about other product categories for the future. “We’re asking how to expand the reach of the Jack Nicklaus label, which has such brand equity.”

PEI is developing the Jack Nicklaus Black Label for fall, a higher-end line that will be targeted to green-grass shops and will include mercerized cotton for polos, cashmere sweaters and blended fabrics with performance attributes.

When he’s not working on apparel collections, Nicklaus still follows the sport closely and singled out Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Keegan Bradley as young players he believes have the most promise.

But he also bemoaned the current state of the business. “Golf has become a stodgy game for the upper-middle class,” he said. “It didn’t start that way.”

He added: “Why are we losing people? We’ve lost 36 percent of women and 28 percent of kids and even five million core golfers, who are defined as those who play eight or more rounds a year.”

In his opinion, there are three reasons for this significant drop: golf takes too long, it’s too expensive and it’s too hard. He said those involved in the sport need to “think out of the box” to encourage more young people, women and seniors to play. Case in point: He said that, of his 22 grandchildren, only one plays golf.

Although the numbers might look grim, Nicklaus said there are several productive movements under way. These include the PGA’s Tee It Forward campaign, which encourages golfers to play from a closer tee box, and the SNAG (Start New at Golf) initiative for kids and newbies, which uses Velcro sticks and tennis balls. “And I’m an advocate of 12-hole golf and eight-inch holes. It’s not for the core golfer, but it would encourage people who don’t play every day. It can reduce the time and cost and make the game easier and more fun. Then they’ll go to J.C. Penney and buy more shirts.”

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