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Nicklaus grieves for his grandson — and still wants to play at Augusta

Sports views

Posted: Wednesday, April 06, 2005

They began playing a few weeks ago, a famous father and son using time on the golf course to help deal with their grief. The conversation came later, after two trips to a place they both love.

''Go play,'' Steve Nicklaus urged his dad.

''I want to play, but I don't have much of a golf game,'' his father replied.

''You'll have a golf game,'' Steve said.

Jack Nicklaus wasn't quite as sure as his son, but he wasn't going to tell him no. Golf was helping both of them spend the long hours since the March 1 death of 17-month-old Jake Nicklaus, Steve's son and Jack's grandson. The baby died after falling into a hot tub.

Besides, the unexpected time on the course sparked a desire that Nicklaus thought had long since gone.

''So I'm here,'' Nicklaus said Tuesday before heading out for a Masters practice round. ''That's why I'm playing.''

Nicklaus didn't need to give a reason to the people who run Augusta National when he made a late decision to play. He's got six of their green jackets, and with them come some perks.

No explanation was needed for the huge crowd, either, that gathered around to watch Nicklaus. They roared as he strolled to the first tee, then roared again as he and Tom Watson teed off.

Maybe he was simply trying to justify in his own mind why he was taking up a spot in the field when even he knows he doesn't have a chance to compete anymore.

''My time has passed,'' Nicklaus said. ''I've had my time at Augusta.''

It has. But, oh, what a time it was.

Arnold Palmer may be the man the Masters holds dearest to its heart, but Nicklaus is the tournament's greatest player. From the time he came to Augusta as a 19-year-old amateur in 1959 — with an appetite so big they charged him $2 extra for dinner — he has been larger than life here.

His waistline slimmed as his game took off. Nicklaus won his first Masters in 1963 and then added five more, the last coming on a back nine charge 19 years ago that was one of the most thrilling moments in golf history.

At 65, though, about the best he can hope for is to make the cut — something he hasn't been able to do in his last three tries.

Now, he's inching precariously close to becoming something he swore he would never become — a ceremonial player like Palmer, who finally bid Augusta National goodbye last year.

''I just feel like if I decide I want to play, and I'm invited to play, and I have the right to play, I'll go play,'' Nicklaus said.

That kind of talk wouldn't have come from Nicklaus just a few years ago. Palmer relished his role all the way through his 50th and final Masters, but Nicklaus just wanted to beat the pants off everyone.

While Palmer made his way around the course shaking hands, kissing women and greeting old friends, Nicklaus played with the intensity and tunnel vision of someone who had 18 major titles and thought he could still win more.

That didn't seem so far-fetched in 1998 when Nicklaus flirted with a final-day charge before settling for a tie for sixth place at the age of 58. But that was before Hootie Johnson added some beef to the course, and the player who used to blow it by everyone else found himself hitting fairway woods to par-4s that young players were reaching with 8-irons.

''I think I can make the cut if I play halfway decent,'' Nicklaus said. ''Will I make the cut? Probably not. But do I think I should make it? Yeah.''

What Nicklaus might end up doing is embarrassing himself, as he did two years ago when he opened with an 85 on a blustery day. The potential is there on a course that is longer, faster and harder to figure out than it was during Nicklaus' prime.

If it was any other sport, Nicklaus would have been gone long before he was ever eligible to collect Social Security. If it was any tournament other than the Masters or British Open, Nicklaus wouldn't even be trying.

He'll play at St. Andrews this year for the last time, sneaking one last British in before reaching the mandatory cutoff age of 66. Steve will caddie for him, as he did for his Dad's last serious Masters run seven years ago.

This will likely be the last Masters for Nicklaus, though he refuses to concede that it's finally over. When it is, he says, he wants to leave Augusta National without fanfare.

For now, though, Nicklaus has more on his mind than his 45th Masters. Never outwardly emotional or sentimental, the child's death has clearly affected him.

Solace for both father and son has come on the golf course.

''The parents, they had that child from birth and they grow with that. That's a whole different story for them and the hardest part is watching your children suffer,'' Nicklaus said.

''It's a double whammy for a grandparent. That's just not supposed to happen.''

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org.



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