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Inside Golf Legend Jack Nicklaus' Fight To Reclaim His Name

By Michael DeRienzo, Esq. | Last updated on

A few athletes are so dominant they become synonymous with the sport they play. What Michael Jordan is to basketball and Wayne Gretzky is to hockey, the name Jack Nicklaus is to golf. But what about the man behind the name? Can he live outside the world of golf, or is he destined to exist exclusively on that course?

This is not the beginning of a blog on existentialism. Instead, it is the essence of multi-million dollar litigation between golf legend Jack Nicklaus and his former business partner, Howard Milstein. Milstein alleges that Nicklaus sold him his name and likeness, and as such, Nicklaus is forbidden from using the name “Jack Nicklaus" to promote golf-related businesses. Nicklaus, the man who arguably is golf, disagrees. Now, like countless times before, the world will watch Nicklaus play to win, only this time on a different stage.

How We Got Here

On the golf course, Nicklaus was legendary. Nicklaus won 118 professional tournaments throughout his career, including a record 18 major championships. In business, however, Nicklaus was less successful, including a public financial corruption scandal that resulted in two executives being jailed.

However, Nicklaus eventually found success designing golf courses, and his company, the Nicklaus Companies, LLC, was prosperous. One reason for the success was a December, 1994 consent which gave Nicklaus Companies the non-exclusive right to use Nicklaus' names and likeness to develop trademarks and other intellectual properties.

In 2007, he partnered with billionaire banker Howard Milstein, who invested $145 million into the company, and by 2012, Milstein became head of the Nicklaus Companies LLC.

Following a breakdown in the relationship, Nicklaus left the company and wanted to continue to design golf courses individually.

Milstein argued that Nicklaus had sold the names “Jack Nicklaus" and “Golden Bear," and the exclusive rights to use them as part of a 2007 deal. Milstein sued to stop him.

Jack Wants His Name Back

In May, 2022, Milstein filed a lawsuit against Nicklaus, attempting to forbid him from using the Nicklaus name for any golf design services without the express permission of Nicklaus Companies. In December, 2022, the court granted the motion. This means Nicklaus cannot put is name on golf-related endeavors, at least for now.

But Nicklaus is not a quitter. In April, 2023, Nicklaus fought back, filing suit in Florida state court for unfair competition under both state and federal law. The central theme of his argument centered around Nicklaus' claim that the 2007 sale included the non-exclusive rights to his name and likeness.

After removing the case to federal court, Milstein successfully filed a motion to dismiss under the Princess Lida doctrine. The judge ruled that the New York State Court had jurisdiction to hear this issue as it had already ruled the case.

The Future

It is still the early stages of litigation, so it could take years before there is any resolution. But perhaps for Jack Nicklaus, the answer to whether he can exist outside of his name can be found in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In the famous play about star-crossed lovers, Juliet can be seen telling Romeo that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Is it the same for golfers? Only time will tell.

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