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The vast, old, gabled clubhouse rose out of the New Jersey countryside, looking as if it belonged on the jacket of a gothic novel, and Jack Nicklaus, walking toward it through the great roaring crowd, was toting so many records he could have used an extra caddie. It was a wondrous moment in golf. Harry Vardon was inventing the grip again, Arnold Palmer was hitching up his trousers, Bobby Jones was winning the Grand Slam at Merion, and Ben Hogan was smoking another cigarette and staring icily at the narrow corridors of Oakland Hills. But this was Jack Nicklaus, in effect doing all that and maybe more, and doing it in such a way that the Baltusrol golf course lay in total destruction behind him and the U.S. Open—the grandest of the major championships—now belonged so much to him that only an eternity could take it away.
Nicklaus' golf game not only returned to him last week after an absence of almost two years, but the old gestures came back, too: Jack joyously raising his putter high in the air as a crucial birdie falls; Jack grinning and waving to the delirious throngs as he marches triumphantly up the 72nd fairway like a king of old.
It was Nicklaus' Open all the way, and there were Nicklaus records set in every round, but he wouldn't have his fourth Open championship and his 18th major title—five more than anyone else—until the final hole had been played and he had nursed a two-stroke lead through the oaks, elms and spruce of Baltusrol and outlasted the heroic bid and the uncanny putter of Isao Aoki of Japan.
It seemed unbelievable that although Nicklaus' earlier rounds of 63, 71 and 70 had left the Open record book looking like so much confetti, he was still unable to shake Aoki, who, curiously, putts with the toe of his putter sticking up and strikes the ball far back on the heel of the club. Not until Nicklaus had birdied the last two holes and fired a 68 and shattered another record would he finally dispose of Aoki. Maybe that's what made it so very sweet for Jack in the end, the fact that he had to work for his victory instead of taking a convivial stroll among the armbands and striped ties of the USGA officials.
When Nicklaus rammed home a 20-foot birdie putt at the 17th hole—the 71st of the tournament—around dinnertime last Sunday, the cheers could be heard as far away as the Lincoln Tunnel. Up went the gloved hand with the putter attached to it, as it had so many other times in places like Augusta and by the firths of Scotland. And when he dropped a 12-foot birdie putt on the last hole to ensure his victory, the gallery suddenly broke away from the marshals, creating a disorderly scene reminiscent of the old days before someone thought up restraining ropes. Amid the tumult Jack broke into a familiar grin and then politely—and nearly singlehandedly—restrained the onrushing throng, so that Aoki could sink the putt that clinched second place for him.
Out on the course that had taken away the excellent chances of other serious contenders like Tom Watson, Keith Fergus and Lon Hinkle, a message went up on the scoreboard: JACK is BACK. But in the Baltusrol locker room, Lee Trevino said it better as he watched the last few holes on television.
"Get away and let the big dog eat!" shouted Trevino.
When the laughter subsided, Lee smiled at the TV set and said, "In my dreams, you always win, Jack."
Nicklaus didn't even have to par those last two holes on Sunday; he could have bogeyed one of them, and his 72-hole total of 275 would have been good enough to edge out the 276 that had been posted by Watson, Fergus and Hinkle, each of whom got that total in his own way—Watson primarily by making a hole-in-one on Thursday and chipping in for an eagle on Friday, and, otherwise, not making very many putts. If Nicklaus had gotten that measly 275, he would have matched the score he shot back in 1967 when he won the Open on a slightly different Baltusrol. But it wouldn't have been good enough to defeat the unyielding Aoki, a highly regarded player in other parts of the world, but not exactly noted for his American Express commercials in the U.S.
No. All week long Aoki had been in the profoundest putting mood since Billy Casper at Winged Foot in 1959. And Nicklaus had been privileged to watch every unorthodox stroke, because the two were paired for all four rounds of the Open. On Thursday, Aoki required only 23 putts for the first of his three consecutive 68s. On Friday he needed but 27. He fell off a little on Saturday, with 31 putts, and despite a chip-in on the 10th, he had the same number on Sunday, when he shot a 70. His four-day performance on the greens added up to 112 putts, and this with as bizarre a style as you're likely to find without watching a foursome trying to break 90.