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To Jake, with love from Grandpa Jack

By GARY SHELTON
Published April 8, 2005


AUGUSTA, Ga. - When the legend stepped onto the tee, the bruised-colored sky of the early afternoon seemed hauntingly familiar.

For Jack Nicklaus, a lot of moments lately have been painted in gloom.

He was home now, on a golf course, on this golf course, and as he moved forward, the swelling noise of the crowd seemed to wrap him (in its arms for comfort. For years, Nicklaus has brought pleasure to the fans of Augusta National. Now, as he prepared to tee off, the fans seemed determined to help erase his pain.

Nicklaus waved away the sound. He is smaller across the shoulders these days, tighter across the face, but he is the same Jack. He swung his driver once, then again, then he looked up.

"Am I up first?" he asked to no one in particular.

"Always," a voice from the crowd answered.

He has played here for glory, and he has played here for greatness. Over his time, he has taken home a closet full of green jackets and much of his fame. He has known the joy of winning six Masters, the frustration of finishing second four times.

This was different, however. You could sense it in the crowd that gathered around Nicklaus, calling his name. This wasn't about old memories. This was about new ones. As much as this was a testament to Jack, it was a nod toward the memory of Jake.

For the Nicklaus family, this has been a difficult time. Five weeks ago, Nicklaus' grandson Jake died after falling into the family hot tub. If you have ever held a child, or a grandchild, it aches even to consider the depth of the pain that must bring.

Jake was Jack's 17th grandchild, 17 months old, and his grandfather says he was just learning to talk, just learning to walk, just developing his personality. He was the kid who loved his grandfather, who would refuse to leave Jack's arms to go back to his parents.

How many times, do you suppose, has a family tried to push aside its grief by watching an athlete such as Nicklaus perform a mundane task such as sports? In many ways, it is the very essence of why we watch, to escape, to numb, to concentrate on something relatively unimportant for a while.

This time, as you watched Jack move around his 12 holes at Augusta National on Thursday, as you watched Steve and Krista Nicklaus (Jake's parents) follow him along, you could not help but hope the day granted them a measure of relief as well.

"Steve and Krista, they cry themselves to sleep every night," Jack said. "I think it's understandable, and it's probably good for them. You know, you're never going to get over something like that, and you shouldn't. That's always going to be part of their life. They have to live with that, and so do we, and we understand it.

"There's nothing anybody can say. No matter what you say, you think it's the wrong thing, because there is no right thing to say. You just move on to what you have to do and grieve and say life will get better. But it's difficult."

Golf? Golf is easier than life. Especially for Nicklaus. Especially here.

Athletes will tell you that the field of play is their greatest sanctuary, the place they are trained to push the world aside. Nothing gets in. Not even heartache.

Asked if the day was emotional for him, Nicklaus shrugged.

"That's always with you," Nicklaus said of his family's tragedy. "But you can't dwell on it every five seconds."

He is 65 now, but the old guy can still make some shots. Considering this was Nicklaus' first tournament in 10 months, he hit the ball well. He was even through six holes, and he thought he should have been better, and his adrenaline was pumping.

Then he hit the wind. And he didn't hit the greens. On 11, for instance, he got into his driver ... and he was still 255 yards short. For his 12 holes, Nicklaus finished 4 over.

"I'm hitting the ball fine," Nicklaus said, "I just couldn't get there anymore. For me, this course is about a par 77 these days."

It occurred to Nicklaus that he faces 24 holes today. "Great," he said. "I can't even walk 18 anymore."

For the fans, Nicklaus will do just fine. After all, Nicklaus wasn't exactly Billy Casper, throwing up 106 shots. The tournament is no longer within Nicklaus' reach, but he isn't here simply to ride in the parade, either.

Consider, for instance, the way Arnold Palmer played his last few rounds at Augusta. Palmer was as much ambassador as competitor, embracing the fans, swapping the old stories, singing the old hits like a rock 'n' roll reunion show. Nothing wrong with that.

Nicklaus? He put his head down and played golf. The years have taken some of his power, but they haven't taken his focus. Nothing wrong with that, either.

"I'm going to play every shot," Nicklaus said. "I promise you that."

There are times we pay too much attention to the money in sports and not enough to the emotions. There are times we look too hard at riches and not enough at rewards.

Then there are days such as this one, when a dignified golfer swings through the gloom, adding one more memory to his legacy.

When it comes to those who follow the Masters, afterall, Jack Nicklaus is up first.

Always.

[Last modified April 8, 2005, 00:34:10]


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