Jack Nicklaus just won a big legal battle against his former friend and erstwhile business partner Howard Milstein. In a 78-page ruling issued earlier this month, David Lichter, a neutral arbitrator, found that Nicklaus was no longer bound by a non-compete agreement with the Nicklaus Companies, the firm that the golfer founded but is now controlled by Milstein. “The arbitrator came to the conclusion that I served my time, and my non-compete can go away and now I can do anything,” Nicklaus told me in an interview on Wednesday. “I can go design golf courses in my own name again.”

To which a spokesman for Milstein said: nope. “Nothing has changed,” the spokesman said, “If Jack wants to design courses and commercialize the use of his name, he still has to do it through the Nicklaus Companies.” That’s debatable. Nicklaus told me he already has golf projects in the pipeline outside the company’s auspices, and it’s not clear whether Milstein can stop them or if he’s going to try. But what is clear is that while Nicklaus may have won this battle, his war with Milstein goes on. And on.

To recap (briefly) the story I told in Golf Digest in May 2023, Milstein, a multi-billionaire New York real estate heir and owner of the largest private bank in the United States, invested $145 million in the Nicklaus Companies in 2007 and became the controlling shareholder. (Milstein also owns a number of golf-related businesses, including Golf magazine and website, which are competitors to Golf Digest.) Nicklaus chafed at Milstein’s leadership and sought to leave the company altogether in 2017. Since then, Nicklaus has sought to strike out on his own, especially as a golf course designer, and Milstein has sought to force Nicklaus to continue to sell his services through the Nicklaus Companies.

Milstein sued Nicklaus in New York state court in 2022, and the judge, in a preliminary ruling (the case is supposed to go to trial in 2025), gave something to both sides. He said that Nicklaus could continue designing courses, but he couldn’t market them with terms that the company still owned, like “Golden Bear” and “Jack Nicklaus Signature.” Milstein had also argued that Nicklaus couldn’t sell his services outside of the Nicklaus Companies because of a five-year non-compete agreement. But the arbitrator disposed of that claim, ruling that the five years had already lapsed. So has Nicklaus also won the right to start using his name again to sell his golf course designs? Nicklaus says yes; Milstein says no. More litigation in New York will resolve the issue. Someday. In the meantime, in a separate case, Nicklaus has sued Milstein for defamation in Florida state court, claiming that Milstein lied when he said that Nicklaus was open to an offer to join the Saudi-backed LIV Golf League. That case, too, is pending.


Jack Nicklaus and Howard Milstein, on the day they became business partners in 2007.

The larger question, of course, is why this war of billionaire vs. millionaire, septuagenarian vs. octogenarian, can’t come to a peaceful settlement. (Milstein is 73; Nicklaus is 84.) In part, it seems, the two alpha males have simply grown to loath each other. But Nicklaus makes a broader point. “I would just go bonkers sitting around the house,” he told me, “I love the atmosphere, the pleasure, of building golf courses.” And Nicklaus wants to pursue that work with his sons, who have drawn closer to him, personally and professionally, in recent years. “By virtue of this win from the arbitrator, my family can carry my name and likeness into the future. I know I’m a limited resource at this age, and hopefully I have a few good years left. But my kids are now free.” Then Nicklaus, full of the kind of joy in victory that came with his 18 major wins, added, “I’m going to live indefinitely!”

This article was originally published on golfdigest.com