Heart of a champion spans generations

Jack Nicklaus watches his son Gary Nicklaus from the sidelines at No. 9 during the 112th U. S. Amateur Championship at Cherry Hills Country Club in Colorado.

Editor's note: This column originally ran in the Sept. 28, 2012 issue of Golfweek.

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ALDIE, Va. -- If watching film of Jack Nicklaus’ unforgettable 1986 Masters win never grows old, there is a remarkable way to enhance the experience: Watch Jack Nicklaus watch scenes of that glorious victory.

More than 26 years later, the putts at 15, 16 and 17 still rolled brilliantly, and a putter raised skyward signaled triumph. But only when the TV went blank, the lights came on and applause resonated did you understand that the moisture in Nicklaus’ eyes – matched by those around him – didn’t have a thing to do with the eagle-birdie-birdie burst, the back-nine 30, a sixth green jacket or an improbable victory at 46.

The tears were in memory of a young boy who left this world, but not before taking ownership of a piece of Nicklaus’ heart.

You may know the story: The Rev. Bill Smith was Barbara Nicklaus’ minister in Columbus, Ohio, and his son, Craig, was a passionate Jack Nicklaus fan. Diagnosed with a bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, Craig Smith got immeasurable joy from watching his hero on TV, and he told Nicklaus that he always watched while wearing his lucky yellow shirt. Nicklaus also favored yellow, and in the years after Craig Smith’s death in 1971 at age 13, the color offered a sense of attachment.

So, on that April Sunday in 1986, Nicklaus was four off the lead, allegedly over-the-hill and no match for youngsters named Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros.

“I pulled out a yellow shirt, looked at Barbara and said, ‘What do you think?’ ”

She thought of Craig Smith, of course, and back in Columbus, the reverend and his wife, Mary Lou, watched Nicklaus’ vintage back-nine charge and cried at the sight of the yellow shirt.

Last year, to salute the 25th anniversary of that epic win, ESPN told the Craig Smith story. That tape was played again Sept. 18 to an intimate gathering at The Club at Creighton Farms, and no one was fixated more than Nicklaus. “I have never seen that,” he said. “It was beautiful.”

It was, but the most beautiful part of all is that the story hit at the heart of Nicklaus’ trip to the Virginia countryside. True, he designed the course and checking in on his projects is common stuff, but this visit – officially called the Creighton Farms Invitational hosted by Jack Nicklaus – went much deeper. His fame is built upon impeccable golf, but his legacy might just be the work he and Barbara have done to help children.

“The world knows him as Jack the golfer, but as Jack the philanthropist, that’s where he’s having a greater impact,” said Patty McDonald, president and CEO of the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation.

When he speaks of NCHCF, Jack Nicklaus is adamant that “this is Barbara’s baby,” and anybody who has met the special woman knows how true that statement is. But it is impossible not to be impressed by the way golf’s greatest champion has thrown himself into the effort.

“I don’t need the work,” said Nicklaus, 72, when asked about his Virginia trip. “But I don’t mind working for the children.”

The foundation has benefited sick children in southern Florida (Miami Children’s Hospital), in his native Columbus (Nationwide Children’s Hospital) and through various grants. Funds have been raised through golf endeavors, including “The Jake,” a tournament at The Bear’s Club that is in memory of Jake Walter Nicklaus, their 17-month-old grandson who tragically died in 2005. So successful has the foundation been in specific areas, they want to spread the goodwill to other parts of the country.

Thus, the Creighton Farms Invitational will benefit the NCHCF, the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington and the Inova Children’s Hospital in Falls Church, Va. But if Wednesday morning’s pro-am supplied the fuel that drove the affair, it was Tuesday night’s appearance by 10-year-old Amanda Merrell that provided clarity.

Like Craig Smith, the boy who touched Nicklaus’ heart, Amanda at 2 was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. The disease took her left leg, but it didn’t put a dent in her dazzle. Amanda lit up the room; she sang a song with her 8-year-old sister, Samantha, she smiled, she told her story, and yes, she joined with others in asking for Nicklaus’ autograph.

She was the only one, however, who had a prosthetic leg for Nicklaus to sign.

Nicklaus had time for everyone in the room, handshakes and stories, too, but for Amanda he had more – he had a warm embrace with whispered words from the heart. And for young children like Amanda who are in need of medical help, Nicklaus has endless energy, commitment and passion.

He became a hero for his golf, but he remains an icon for his human touch.

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