Nicklaus found his trouble in the British Open early, the first day at Birkdale, when he had a good chance to take a two-stroke lead on the field. He was tied for first with two holes to play, both of them birdie holes—eagle holes, almost, depending on the wind—for Nicklaus. He bogeyed them both, hurling himself back into the heap and killing his confidence for the week.
Losing a tournament that one wants badly to win, and thinks he is winning, is not the most fun thing in an athlete's life. But another of Jack Nicklaus' weapons is his reaction to disappointment. Buoyed by youth and ability, and honestly gracious, he somehow seems able to laugh, even when he loses, because he knows that he has another time coming.
Recently Nicklaus was asked what it feels like to hear constantly that he is the best player in the world.
"If I believed it, I wouldn't be able to achieve anything," he said. "I don't think I'm the golfer yet that I'm capable of becoming. If I ever do win more major championships than Bobby Jones, I don't think I'll be satisfied with myself if I know I have more competitive years ahead of me. I'll know I still have room for improvement."
What if he were able to win the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and the PGA all in the same year?
"That's obviously one of my goals but it's a pretty high one," he says. "I think it's possible, and not just for me but for a lot of players. But I also think it's improbable. Some of us have come close. I suppose I came close last year. All I know is this. If I happened to do it now or next year or anytime in the immediate future, I wouldn't say O.K., that's it, and quit. I'd think up something else for a goal. Everybody wants to be the best. And there's nothing wrong with trying."
There could hardly be a better year for Jack to try for the Slam than 1972. The courses must look tempting to him. Augusta, where he's won three times. The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he won the Amateur and also this year's Crosby. Muirfield, near Edinburgh, where he won his first British Open in 1966. And Oakland Hills for the PGA. Nicklaus has not won at Oakland Hills, but it is a classic layout where he played well as an amateur in the 1961 Open, finishing fourth.
"It's silly to say I'm going after the Grand Slam," he observes. "What I'm going after is the Masters, the first of the big four. You can only say you're going after the Slam when you've won the first three, and no one has done that. But you're always concentrating and working and thinking, getting your game ready for the major championships."
If Nicklaus' game is not ready for this year's Masters, it has never been. He goes to Augusta as the first man ever to win more than $100,000 so early in the season, as the winner, already, of two tournaments on the tour and nearly the winner of two more, the Gleason and last week's New Orleans Open. He goes with tremendous respect for his main challengers—Palmer, Player, Trevino—and golfers he holds much respect for, like Johnny Miller, Larry Hinson, George Archer, Tony Jacklin, Tom Weiskopf.
"Arnold's a better golfer now than he ever was," says Nicklaus. "He's a better driver and shotmaker. Gary's always a threat in a major tournament because he comes ready and he's a terrific competitor. Trevino's a great player and Archer's very underrated. And guys like Miller and Hinson and Weiskopf have everything it takes. There are lots of others who can win anytime, anywhere. The difference in winning and losing a golf tournament is so thin it's almost foolish."