Bonding over moments shared with sons

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DUBLIN, Ohio – When hours of golf drama had been completed Sunday, the roars had faded and those in attendance had filed away, it was left for a priceless image to come into view and put the Memorial Tournament in perspective.

Barbara Nicklaus took Leo Rose, as precocious a 15-month-old as you’ll find, by the hand and walked him around the 18th green at Muirfield Village Golf Club.

Perhaps 45 minutes earlier, that same green had served as a stage for Justin Rose’s first PGA Tour victory and the subsequent awards ceremony. But now, it was Leo’s personal playground. Though he can be excused from not knowing it, let the record show he had the grandest guide anyone could possibly hope for.

Barbara Nicklaus, you see, is every bit the major champion her husband is, and as she poured her attention toward young Leo and soaked in his every move, you could sense a feeling of nostalgia come over her.

Did it remind her of a certain unforgettable time in the Nicklaus family life?

Barbara Nicklaus nodded, and words were left unsaid, but, yes, the memory came rushing back of Canterbury CC in Cleveland and the 1973 PGA Championship. Then in pursuit of his 12th major championship, Jack Nicklaus was frozen forever on film, defined for who he is and what he stands for. His putter in his left hand, the Golden Bear had his 4-year-old son Gary bundled in his right arm.

See the photo

Jack Nicklaus and son, Gary, at the 1973 PGA Championship. (From linkslifegolf.com)

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Jack Nicklaus and son, Gary, practice fishing.

“It is,” Nicklaus said, “my favorite picture ever,” and Barbara Nicklaus lights up at the very thought of it.

“Two days in a row, Gary had his picture on the front page of the paper,” Barbara Nicklaus said as she watched Leo explore the grass in front of the 18th green. “The day before, he walked into the press conference and sat on his father’s lap.”

But it was when young Gary ventured out onto the 18th green at Canterbury that photographers helped capture Nicklaus at his best. What Barbara will never forget is how she gasped at the sight of her child set loose, fearful that he would disrupt play.

It was not the final round, as often has been assumed, so the match was very much in the balance.

“Thankfully,” Barbara said, “Bruce Crampton had putted out and play was over.”

It was their oldest son, Jack Nicklaus II, who orchestrated things, urging his younger brother to get beneath the ropes and roam. Being 4, Gary took him up on it, and while one could have understood if shock overtook Jack Nicklaus, that is not his makeup. Instead, he smiled and embraced Gary; his persona has always outshined his golf.

There are more grandchildren than major championships, 19-18, and that is what the Nicklauses find most rewarding about their incredible journey together. They are the greatest couple our American sports landscape has been blessed with, their graciousness and charitable causes seemingly endless, so in that vein it was perhaps fitting that Justin Rose won the Memorial.

His wife, you see, was right there with Barbara Nicklaus, focused more on Leo, content to let her husband bask in the spotlight that was long overdue. As Leo made his way into the bunker and picked up handfuls of sand, Kate laughed right along with Barbara.

And right along with Barbara, Kate has embraced a slice of the golf wife’s life that gets far too little attention but means so much more than the birdies and bogeys.

She takes on the charitable causes, working with the PGA Tour Wives Association. In fact, as Justin Rose authored a scintillating final-round 66 to win in style, Kate was focused on a Tuesday outing back home at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla.

“Blessings in a Backpack” is the initiative, and the goal couldn’t be more important. It is to keep children fed.

“We’ll raise at least $50,000,” Kate said, “but if we raise $80,000, we could feed a thousand children for weekends for a year.”

It is a beautiful thought, and as it hung in the warm Ohio air, Kate asked simply: “How can you learn if you’re on an empty stomach?”

You can’t, of course, but Kate Rose knows, too, that things only get done when people pull together in a selfless manner. Dozens of PGA Tour wives have done just that, with very little fanfare, perhaps, but with great success.

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Jack Nicklaus congratulates Justin Rose after he won the 2010 Memorial.

That sense of social responsibility tied Kate and Barbara together, as did the scene with young Leo. Barbara applauded when photos of Leo’s exploits were captured on film, thrilled that “they will be able to look back and remember a moment like this.”

Yes, like that time when young Gary stole a piece of the show at Canterbury. But Barbara laughed when she told the rest of the story. Two days of photo ops was enough, it seems, “so I called my mother and asked her to come up (from Columbus)” for babysitting duties.

“Gary was being benched,” Jack Nicklaus said with a hearty laugh. “He couldn’t go to any more of that tournament.”

Nicklaus, of course, won that ’73 PGA Championship, though Gary had reminded him of what truly mattered.

Here’s guessing that Leo did similarly to Justin and Kate, even in the most joyous of athletic achievements.

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