The same front-runners who booed him a few years ago are now falling all over themselves to adore him. No sooner does Nicklaus strike a drive—and before even he himself can tell whether it is short, long, in the rough or behind a tree—most of the gallery is oohing and aahing and saying "Wow!" "Great shot," "Way to go, Jack!" And then somebody like Hale Irwin belts one 20 yards longer, to the right place, and silence rolls around the hills.
The fans even defer to Nicklaus' regular caddie, Angelo Argea, fawning over him, seeking his autograph. When two caddies at Akron had to get through a crowd, a blazerperson said, "Hey, let Angelo and the caddie through." The galleries part when Nicklaus moves to the tee, and if he is polite and smiles at someone in his path, the person is most likely to turn away, abashed before his greatness. When he speaks, people just listen to what he says, never noticing the same high-pitched voice they used to mock and laugh at. This is the way it is when at last you are liked.
Since Palmer faded, there has been a succession of challengers to Nicklaus—Player, Trevino, Weiskopf, Miller, Crenshaw, now Watson, with Nicklaus patiently anticipating that Severiano Ballesteros will be trotted out soon. Each has credentials, each has been hot for a time, but looking back across the '70s, one can see that they were mostly dramatic inventions of a press that had to create rivals in order to sustain interest.
The champion always enjoyed the competition—"This is fun," he observed to Weiskopf and Miller in the cauldron of his '75 Masters victory—but in essence, he was only, as ever, competing against himself. "The toughest thing about success is that you've got to keep on being a success," Irving Berlin once noted, but it is typical of Nicklaus that he sees it the other way round. "Winning breeds more winning," he says. "You learn how to win by winning. As long as I'm prepared, I always expect to win."
The slump, so called, of 1976 and '77 would surely not even have attracted attention except that Nicklaus had reached the same age when the legendary Palmer couldn't win the majors anymore. Ergo, neither could Nicklaus. In fact, in 1977 he was tied for the lead in three of the big four with only two holes to play. But early in 1978 he brought the winter tour to its knees, finishing second, first, second, first in four straight tournaments. And in July, at St. Andrews, he won his 17th major championship, which is four more than anyone else has ever won. Even though Nicklaus feels his record will be broken one day, very few agree.
It is Nicklaus' own judgment that he played the 1978 British Open, tee to green, as well as he played any major championship in all his life. His rival at the end was one Simon Owen, a New Zealander of no previous consequence. This detracted somewhat from the drama, but having had two straight previous second places in the British Open and three times been a runner-up in a major tournament since winning the 1975 PGA, it could hardly be said that Nicklaus reached the 16th tee, a stroke back, immune to thoughts of failure. Owen had just chipped in from 25 yards out and was enjoying an unconscious, Fleckful kind of afternoon.
An athlete looks funny putting. Nobody ever said that any golfer looked good putting. Hushed and hunched, it is all a man can do not to appear silly. Nicklaus looks no better at it than anyone else. But even all this he understands. It is a verity in the game that the putting touch is the first casualty of middle age. "There is no logical reason for that," he says. "But putting is the least manly thing in golf, and therefore, when a player gets older and he does not win as much, he blames it on his putting. He does not want to admit that his power may be leaving him."
Ah, but then the drive. Here is the golfer, here is Nicklaus, rampant. At the 16th at St. Andrews, the Corner of the Dyke, par-4, 382 yards, he took out his three-wood and teed up the ball. Simon Owen, one stroke ahead, watched him. People are usually let down when they first encounter Nicklaus, for he is not nearly as large as they had imagined. But he is genuinely awesome upon the tee. Often as not he will clench and unclench his gloved hand, giving it the threatening appearance of a claw. He never speaks, perhaps with the unconscious knowledge that to reveal his choirboy voice at this stage would spoil the act. Instead, he stands silently behind the ball, his piercing blue eyes scrutinizing it as surely as if it were a bold adversary. Then, Nicklaus raises his head and looks out carefully over the fairway, in every way the captain scanning the sea. The courses he builds are criticized for being too tough, too unyielding, too much in his own image, but they are also marked by one other thing: each hole must either go downhill or give that appearance, so that a man can properly survey his domain.
St. Andrews is distinct from any other course in the world, of course, an unbecoming instrument of the winds that sweep off the North Sea. "Just to see it, it's ugly," Nicklaus says. "The buildings are all ugly—even the old clubhouse—all so gray and stark. There are no trees. But put it all together, it is one of the most gorgeous sites in the world. You see, it is pretty because of what I feel for it."
St. Andrews had restored Nicklaus once before, in 1970, the first major he won after his father died. Now, on the 16th at St. Andrews in 1978, he put the three-wood exactly where he wanted to, 260 yards out, to the left of the Principal's Nose bunkers, and then he strode the fairway. The second shot, 120 yards, a nine-iron, fell barely six feet from the pin. Intimidated, Owen flew his iron over the green, and he bogeyed. Nicklaus drummed home his six-footer, dead on. He makes the six-footers; manhood comes in many-sized packages. And thus in one hole: one down to one up.