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THOUGH GRIEF IS UNBEARABLE, JACK IS BACK

A little more than a month ago, the toddler was in his arms, clinging to his neck as he often did, a grandpa's boy through and through. Jack Nicklaus would try to release him, and Jake would hug him a little tighter, refuse to set him free. The family would laugh and marvel at the depth of the connection.

No one could remember any of the other 16 grandchildren being as overtly smitten with the Golden Bear. The joke was Jake must be one smart little devil to have deduced, by age 17 months, who in the family owns the key to the vault.

"I said, 'Well, that kid is set for life,' " Nicklaus said this week, smiling at the memories that provide respite from the emptiness of reality.

There was doubt whether Nicklaus, 65, would play the Masters this week, tee it up at Augusta National for the 45th time. He'd hinted after last year that he might be done, that he was struggling to maintain his standard, that his priorities had changed and, flat-out truth, he's too proud to putter around for nostalgia's sake.

"I think you all know me well enough," he said. "I'm not going to come back and clutter up the field if I don't have to."

The Golden Bear is here, and maybe it's because he has to be. Maybe it's because he senses his presence can be a catharsis that, if only for select moments, relieves his family from its overwhelming grief. The Nicklaus clan continues to grope for a degree of normalcy after the death of Jake, who drowned March 1 in the hot tub behind the home of his parents, Steve and Krista Nicklaus.

What could be more commonplace, more reassuring under the circumstances, than the Golden Bear spending the first full week of April at Augusta, participating in the tournament he defines? Nicklaus might be discouraged by his declining capabilities, but he's never been a healthy scratch at Augusta, where as a six-time winner he's assured the warmest of welcomes, the deepest of sympathies, a heartfelt outpouring of supportive emotions.

"I think this is . . . probably more of a family thing, just at least get everybody's mind off of it," Tiger Woods said after lunching with Nicklaus on Tuesday. "It will be a very touching moment for the entire family."

It was Jake's father, Steve, who steered Nicklaus toward Augusta by inviting him to play a round to cleanse their minds in the aftermath of the tragedy. Eventually, they came to Augusta for 18, with Steve telling his father that he was kidding himself, that he still had enough game to perform more than respectably. Dad got the hint: Go ahead. Play. Play for all of us.

"You know, the parents, they had that child from birth and they grow with that," Nicklaus said. "Steve and Krista, they cry themselves to sleep every night, which I think is understandable and probably good for them. . . . The hardest part is watching your children suffer. . . . It's a double-whammy for a grandparent. That's just not supposed to happen."

The place will be bedlam if Nicklaus puts on a good show, makes a run akin to '98 when, although gimpy with a bad hip, he re-emerged to tie for sixth. Bad weather pushed his 10:11 a.m. tee time back 90 minutes today.

"I think I can make the cut if I play halfway decent," Nicklaus said. "I don't think that should be a stretch for me. Will I make the cut? Probably not. But do I think I should make it? Yeah, I think I could certainly play well enough to do that. Do I think that I can go beyond that if I do that? Then we'll just have to see."

You can be sure the patrons will be rooting him on, at least as hard as ever, probably even harder. They know what he means to the game. Like Jake, they'll be loath to let go.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com