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Jack Nicklaus is once again free to design courses using his own name and likeness

Jack Nicklaus was free to redesign his golf courses under the Jack Nicklaus name after an arbitrator ruled he had no liability to Nicklaus Companies LLC, which he no longer owns.

Nicklaus sold his shares in Nicklaus Companies to New York-based banker Howard Milstein in 2007, and Milstein later bought all of the company’s stock, including the golf course design business that Golden Bear once ran.

Nicklaus, who has designed more than 300 courses worldwide, and Milstein have been at odds in recent years, with the winner of 18 professional major championships mostly ending his relationship with the company in 2017. His contract with the company included a five-year non-compete clause, and Nicklaus will continue to work for Nicklaus Design until May 2022. During that time, he is barred from designing courses on his own outside of Nicklaus Companies.

In late 2022, Nicklaus began offering course design services through his new company, 1-JN, which operates through his family instead of Nicklaus Companies. Milstein had sought to block Nicklaus from using his name and likeness as part of this new 1-JN business, but the arbitrator ruled in Nicklaus’ favor after an 18-day hearing spread over six months. The arbitrator ruled that Nicklaus was now “free” to engage in activities restricted by the terms of the contract and to compete with the company that bears his name, including designing golf courses and soliciting Nicklaus Companies’ clients and employees.

“The arbitration process was a steep learning experience, but I am grateful for how it turned out,” Nicklaus said in a news release announcing the decision. “I continue to do one of the things that makes me happy — building new golf courses and making old ones new again. … I am involved in some great projects right now and I look forward to doing more of the same now that efforts to keep me on the sidelines have failed.”

Milstein has expanded his golf influence in recent years, acquiring other golf-related businesses, including: Golf MagazineTrueSpec and various golf equipment and service businesses.

The press release explains that Nicklaus and Milstein are still at odds. Nicklaus Companies filed a lawsuit in New York against the retired golfer addressing similar issues under other agreements, but the judge in that case denied Nicklaus Companies’ request for an injunction to prevent Nicklaus from designing courses in his name, finding that Nicklaus Companies is unlikely to prevail in the case.

The referee’s response to these issues was explained in the press release as follows:

“To the extent that the Company seeks to argue in another forum that other agreements prevent Jack Nicklaus from acting as a golf course designer or consultant or from personally endorsing or serving as an endorsement spokesperson for any product, service or Person (which logically includes using his name and likeness), such efforts would be to attempt to enforce an unlawful and indefinite non-compete clause that would override this Court’s decision and prevent Mr. Nicklaus from earning his living. It is undisputed that the restrictive covenant provisions of the Employment Agreement were a ‘critical part’ of the overall agreement. … They gave the Company significant rights and they gave Mr. Nicklaus rights. He bargained for the ability to terminate the Term of Employment after five years and to compete with the Company five years thereafter. The express language of the Employment Agreement would have the effect that, upon termination of the restrictive covenants, he would be free to engage in restricted activities on his own behalf and in his own right. Otherwise, the contracts … would be illusory and effectively made permanent, because a person cannot act as a designer of record or approver without “The use of one’s name and related rights of publicity.”

A hearing date for the case in New York has not yet been set.

Nicklaus said in a press release that he was sorry his relationship with Milstein didn’t end well and regretted “having to fight for the rights that were a key part of the bargain we made in 2007.” Nicklaus ended on a positive note:

“If you want a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, call me.”