FieldsApril 4, 2011

Nicklaus' Sunday Salutes To A Brave Young Boy

Nicklaus hadn't won a tournament in two years when he claimed the 1986 Masters wearing yellow on Sunday.

Early on April 13, 1986, hours before Jack Nicklaus began the most remarkable round of his life, Mary Lou Smith had a feeling. "I remember saying, 'He's going to wear yellow today, and he's going to win,' " Mary Lou says. "Inside, I just knew."

That afternoon Mary Lou and her husband, the Reverend Dr. William E. Smith, sat in their Ohio home for the Masters telecast. "As soon as we turned the TV on and saw that Jack was wearing the yellow shirt," says Dr. Smith, "we knew that was no casual decision." Yellow goes with green, but the color Nicklaus had chosen was about friendship not fashion. "We knew," Dr. Smith adds, "he was doing it in memory of Craig."

Craig was the Smith's older child, a boy everyone liked and no one forgot. "Whereas I was horribly shy, he was always talking to everyone," says his sister, Janet. "He could talk to anybody about anything. He was very smart, very athletic, very musical. People were drawn to him because he was such a cute little guy."

The Smiths vacationed often in Pinehurst, N.C., where Mary Lou's parents, Alvie and Earlene Claxton, keen and skilled golfers, had retired. Taught by his grandfather, Craig became smitten with golf, his athleticism the foundation of a natural swing. Living in Columbus, Nicklaus' hometown and where Dr. Smith was minister at the Methodist church Jack's wife, Barbara, attended, there was no doubt who Craig's favorite golfer was. "The Nicklauses would stop by our house and sit and drink a Coke and visit," Janet says. "That's definitely how Jack and Craig struck up a friendship."

But in 1968, when he was 11, walking to school one morning, Craig fell down. His mother saw it. Later that day, she asked if anything was wrong. "Mom," he said, "my leg really hurts." On a Saturday when he should have been chipping golf balls in the backyard, or shooting baskets, or playing his trumpet, Mary Lou took Craig to a hospital.

The diagnosis, Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, was grim. The prognosis was unfathomable. "Six months," the doctor said.

In and out of the hospital, agreeing to experimental treatments that might lessen the hopelessly long odds, Craig had the world's best golfer in his corner. "When Craig became so ill and we knew he would not live, Jack came to the house," Mary Lou remembers. "Jack said to him, 'What's your favorite color golf shirt?' Craig and his grandfather both swore yellow shirts were very good luck. They often wore them. Craig told Jack, 'Yellow.' And Jack said, 'Every Sunday, when I'm playing and you can watch it on television, I will wear a yellow shirt, and that's my 'Hello Craig.' "

Jack would call Craig, mail him encouraging notes, send him souvenirs from every tournament -- everything but visit Craig in the hospital, which as a young father himself, he could not bear. As promised, Nicklaus often wore yellow. "It meant everything to Craig," says Dr. Smith. "When Craig would see Jack on TV in a yellow shirt, he'd say, 'Hello to you, Jack.' "

Check the archives. Nicklaus collected the claret jug at St. Andrews in 1970 wearing a yellow sweater. He wore a yellow shirt as he accepted the Wanamaker Trophy at the 1971 PGA Championship. "When Palmer and Nicklaus were at the top of the heap, Palmer was relaxed, and Jack seemed more remote," Dr. Smith says. "Yet beneath that veneer, there was a very caring person. Because he was a very loving father, he could relate to Craig in a very special way."

Even as her son's cancer, in Mary Lou's words, "grew like crabgrass," Craig fought on. Visiting North Carolina for Thanksgiving in 1970, he played his last round of golf, shooting an 84 on Pinehurst's No. 1 course. On June 7, 1971, the day after Nicklaus lost a playoff to Gardner Dickinson at the Atlanta Classic, Craig died at 13.

Fifteen years later, at age 46 and his game in disrepair, Nicklaus still packed for the weekend. Barbara and Jack thought of Craig. Jack, who hadn't won a tournament in two years, a major in six, a Masters since 1975, had a Sunday afternoon of very good luck. The Smiths watched as fans, as friends, as a family with a void that the years cannot fill.

Craig's parents kept his golf clubs for a long time, until Mary Lou heard of a drive to collect clubs for juniors. "You can't turn that down," she says. "I remember putting the clubs in the car and taking them. It was hard, but Craig would have wanted me to. That's the kind of kid he was."