2005 Masters: Augusta helps heal Nicklaus clan’s pain

Augusta, Ga. | As Jack Nicklaus teed off No. 1 at perhaps his final Masters, son Steve watched nearby with keen interest. And with approval. The Golden Bear’s drive would climb the hill, find the fairway and get a smile out of Steve. This was a kernel of good news at a time any good news was especially welcome.

“Not bad for someone 65 years old,” Steve said.

Steve would walk along in the gallery with his mother and other family members. But this was not their usual walk.

It wasn’t like all the strolls during those six Masters victories or the 12 other professional major championship triumphs that have defined Jack Nicklaus as golf’s most accomplished player.

This time they would walk with heavy hearts because about five weeks earlier, 17-month-old Jake Nicklaus, son of Steve and wife Krista, died in a hot-tub accident.

In March, the Nicklauses did not plan to be here. Golf didn’t matter then. Family time did. They would mourn and love together. But two weeks ago, Steve talked his father into going to play golf at Augusta National.

“We had to get away and do something,” Steve said as the Masters commenced. “We had to get out of there.”

So the two of them played, the grieving father and son. A week later Jack would play the National again. He performed well enough that he eventually decided to play the 2005 Masters.

One man’s golf tournament can be another man’s family reunion.

One man’s competition can be another’s escape. So it was for the Nicklauses. There’s only so much mourning you can do at home in the shadow of tragedy.

“Being here is good,” Steve said. “It’s good to get away from home and get your mind off things for the time being. It will never go away. Like my Dad said, you’ve got to grieve in your own way, you’ve got to move on. Being here with the family, a lot of it is therapeutic, but it doesn’t take your mind off of it totally.”

Usually when you ask someone how they are, they dismiss the small-talk question with a simple, “Fine.” Every now and then, someone will respond with a large, candid dose of hard reality. Such a direct answer came a couple of days before the Masters when someone asked Jack Nicklaus how Steve and the family were.

“Steve and Krista, they cry themselves to sleep every night,” Jack responded.

“I think that is understandable and probably good for them.”

This was not standard fare at a Masters news conference. Dying and crying are not usual topics at a golf tournament. But they are at the heart of grandfather Nicklaus’ life now and, as usual, he expressed himself with impressive candor.

Besides being the best golfer ever over the years, Nicklaus has been perhaps the best interview in sports. He is open and opinionated. He doesn’t duck questions. He offers his take on a variety of topics. This time the subject, sadly, was family tragedy.

“You’re never going to get over something like that,” he said. “That’s always going to be part of their life, and they have to live with that. There’s nothing anybody can say,

and no matter what you say, you always think it’s the wrong thing to say because there’s no right thing to say. . . . The hardest part is watching your children suffer.”

Steve and Krista are suffering deeply. The tears fall daily, Steve said. It helps, he said, that Krista is due to give birth in August – that a “new gift” is on the way.

“It’s not easy,” Steve said. “I have good days and bad days. You walk by and see his picture and old room and it’s tough, and everybody brings it up.”

The world, of course, watched a steely Jack Nicklaus beat all comers for decades. He could intimidate just by being there. But on Masters Tuesday this year, we saw an old and wise and gentle Nicklaus, patriarch of a hurting family. He was perhaps as human as we’ve ever seen him.

“(Jake) was just starting to develop a personality,” he said of his late grandson. “He was just running around. They said he was the smartest one of the kids because as soon as he ran into a room he saw me and he went like this (opening his arms). The mother and dad couldn’t get him out of my arms. I’d try to give him back and he would go, ‘Uh-uh.’ They said that was the only kid that does that. I said, ‘Well, that kid is set for life.’ ”

Nicklaus is perhaps more popular now than at any point during his winning of 18 majors. The death of a child has a way of prompting people to open their hearts. It has a way of reuniting old friends and attracting strangers.

Nicklaus knows. He says he has received “thousands” of letters and e-mails. “Thousands” came from people he doesn’t know, he said. “Every one of them is special,” he said.

On Monday his wife, Barbara, handed him a 6-inch-thick pile of correspondence and said, “This is the latest stack that came in.” It’s hard to ascertain what’s more impressive – the volume, or the fact a touched Nicklaus plans to answer every one.

“It’s amazing the number of calls and letters and things,” he said. “I’ve heard from people I haven’t heard from in 40, 50 years, kids, guys I went to school with, things like that. It’s been very, very nice.”

Years ago, Nicklaus said he would not be a ceremonial golfer. But that’s what he is now. That’s not only OK, it’s great. People are glad to see him. It matters not that he can’t reach some greens in regulation now. It matters not that he says he has a hard time standing. It matters not that he has played only one competitive round this year and is rustier than ever.

The important thing is that he was here, among friends. We were saying hello, and we might have been saying goodbye. As for golf, there were no expectations, for him or by him. The golf score didn’t matter because love was in the air. And that’s no small talk.

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