Nicklaus lifts Masters gloom with decision to play

They are forecasting a washout here tomorrow although that very nearly came two days early yesterday as tears of joy fairly cascaded through the pines as it was revealed that there would be a Golden Bear in their midst after all.

They are forecasting a washout here tomorrow although that very nearly came two days early yesterday as tears of joy fairly cascaded through the pines as it was revealed that there would be a Golden Bear in their midst after all.

"Jack's playing," went the whisper as Augusta National filled up some time after dawn and there was no - absolutely no - need to say to which Jack they were referring. Nicklaus, the six-times Masters champion, had been considered a likely non-starter as he grieved over the death of his 17-month-old grandson, Jake, in a hot-tub tragedy at his parents' home last month.

"I had cancelled everything after Jake passed away to spend some time with Steve [his son]," he said. "And Steve wanted to play golf, because he didn't have anything else to do, either. He loves it up here and said, 'Can we go to Augusta?' And anyway, after playing golf, Steve said to me 'go play in The Masters'. 'I want to play,' I said. 'But I don't have much of a golf game.' Steve said, 'Don't worry, you'll have a golf game'."

Indeed, if the portents of the identity of his caddie mean anything, then Nicklaus will have some game. In 1986, when the then 46-year-old became the oldest winner at The Masters, Jackie Jnr was carrying his father's bag. This time around the pair will be reunited for what looks certain to be the 65-year-old's farewell.

"This will be the last time when somewhere in my head I believe that I might be able to shoot a reasonable round," Nicklaus said. "I'm not going to come back - I think you all know me well enough. I'm not going to come back and clutter up the field if I don't have to."

Poignancy will also stalk Ireland's Padraig Harrington, who confessed that "there could be a problem emotionally if I happen to get into contention with a few holes to go". Harrington's father Paddy, who was 72 last week, has terminal cancer of the oesophagus but will still be watching avidly on the television back home in Dublin as his son tries to win his first major. It is likely to be the last time Harrington Snr will have the chance to do so.

"I don't think it would be too much of a problem until the very end, but then it could be quite difficult," said Harrington, who as the world No 6 is easily the highest ranked European.

"Bob Rotella [his sports psychologist] said to me, 'well, if that's the biggest problem we're going to have this week, then we're not going to worry too much about it'. We'll wait until I get into that situation to see how I can handle it."

Perhaps it was in the light of such perspective that Tiger Woods felt able to laugh and joke his way through the customary questioning after having lunch with Nicklaus. His golf game, the world No 2 said , is returning to somewhere near its best after last year's swing changes and he feels that this week could very well mark his ninth major and his first in 11. "I fancy my chances," he said. In fact, Woods feels he may be on the verge of something even bigger than his fourth Masters title. "I won the Masters by 12 shots in '97," he said. "I changed my game. Do I want to go back to that? No, I don't. I want to become even better and that's why I made the swing change. I'm starting to see the fruits of it now."

Unfortunately, if the weather forecasters are to believed, Augusta may not bear witness to those fruits until Friday. Thunderstorms are threatening to wipe out any chance of play tomorrow, making it the ninth of 15 US tournaments this year to be hit by a weather delay. Rainy days in Georgia.

* In his practice round yesterday Sergio Garcia recorded the first albatross ever on the second hole at Augusta.

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