There was no doubt in Nicklaus' mind that Aoki would sink both of the short birdie putts he had given himself on the last two holes. So despite being two shots up on Aoki, Nicklaus not only had to hang in there and avoid a bogey, but he also very possibly would need to drop a birdie himself if his romance with immortality were to continue. The birdie at the 17th was, therefore, the larger of the two he closed with, because it meant that he could play the last hole with three wedges if he wanted to. "The putt on 17 was the kind I had been making for 15 years when I needed it," Nicklaus said later. "But it was the kind I hadn't made for nearly two years."
Nicklaus then played the 18th hole with a three-wood off the tee and a three-iron into perfect position for a 60-yard pitch shot. The pitch left him with the 12-footer that he would have had to three-putt if Aoki were to have any chance to tie him. That might not have been out of the question, considering what Nicklaus had done on the 18th green in a couple of his previous rounds. Back on Thursday, when he and Tom Weiskopf had come home with identical 63s, equaling the tournament record set by Johnny Miller on rain-softened Oakmont in 1973, Jack had blown a dinky three-foot birdie putt that would have given him a 62. And on Saturday he had three-putted from 30 feet for a par, when a routine two-putt birdie would have started him off on Sunday with a one-stroke lead over Aoki instead of in a deadlock.
When the two of them went out for the last round, Aoki quickly got two bogeys in the first four holes, and Nicklaus had a two-stroke lead. On the front nine Jack hit three poor tee shots and struggled to a one-over-par 35. It didn't matter only because no one up ahead of him was making anything happen either.
"All week I had sort of been wondering when the wheels were going to come off," Nicklaus said later, "because that's what had been happening to me for a year and a half or so."
This was a reference to the fact that he hadn't won a tournament since July of 1978, that he hadn't won during all of 1979, the first calendar year since 1962 in which this had happened.
"I was still thinking about it when my driver left me on three holes on the front nine," he went on. "But I realized I was getting my head forward on my swing, and I corrected it. The back nine was about as good as I can play, and it made me realize this old body has a few more wins in it."
As for the last birdie putt, the one he didn't really need to settle matters on 18, Nicklaus confessed he wasn't really trying to make it. He was only trying to get it close. In other words, the big dog had eaten back on 17.
Part of the reason last week's victory was so special to Nicklaus, aside from it being a "comeback" at the age of 40, is that he knew he had missed his chances to turn the 1980 Open into a dull tournament despite his low scoring. For an Open course, Baltusrol was playing so easy that Nicklaus' record 63, his record 134 after 36 holes and his record 204 through three rounds had left nobody in the distance.
On Sunday morning he was still only tied with Aoki and a mere two strokes ahead of Watson, and there were those Hinkles and Ferguses and Mark Hayeses loitering about. And on each of his previous rounds, Nicklaus had faltered just slightly as he neared the clubhouse. Faltering had become a part of his game in the 23 months that preceded the Open, and there had been many irritating questions about his old desire eroding and his nerves finally going the way of all old golfers' nerves.
In a way, Baltusrol was the ideal place for Nicklaus to rediscover his talent. Compared to some of the Open monsters, Baltusrol has always been a pushover. It has never had, nor does it have, that dramatic stretch of holes that invariably produces agony and ecstasy. It is more or less a dull golf course, with 12 par 4s that all look the same. Baltusro's greens are large and basically flat, and last week its fairways were wider than any Open fairways in recent memory. Baltusrol does have its fourth hole, the beautiful par-3 over the water, with the green supported by a charming rock wall, but this hole looks nothing like the rest of the golf course. And it didn't even look very difficult on Thursday when Watson's eight-iron hit two inches from the cup, hopped a foot forward and then spun back into the darkness for a hole-in-one. Baltusrol also has those two concluding par 5s, one unreachable and the other a lush birdie opportunity, and these don't look like the rest of the course, either. Nevertheless, Baltusrol is a fine place to have U.S. Opens because it can hold people and parked cars, and the venerable clubhouse gives it an "Open look." U.S. Open clubhouses are supposed to look substantial, as if they were survivors of a more opulent age.