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There was something for everyone at the Bob Hope Desert Classic in Palm Springs, Calif. last week. There was Bruce Lietzke getting off to his annual hot start on the tour by winning the 90-hole tournament with a record-breaking score of 335, an eye-popping 25 under par, after fending off the cunning play of Jerry Pate, both on and off the course. Lietzke, a bachelor, has been dating Pate's sister-in-law, Rose Nelson. Finding himself two shots down to Lietzke after four rounds, Pate threatened to fly Rose in from Pensacola, Fla. before Sunday's final round. Duffers in the gallery could take solace in seeing rookie Gary Hallberg, a four-time collegiate All-America, hitting his approach shot to the 16th green on Friday from the roof of the clubhouse. Political observers could watch House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who was teamed with former President Gerald Ford and tournament host Hope, repeatedly drive to the right, perhaps in preparation for the new Administration. There was also the usual assortment of Jack Lemmons and Lawrence Welks. But perhaps the biggest attraction in the field was a professional golfer from North Palm Beach, Fla. Blond hair, blue eyes, 19 major championships.
It was early for Jack Nicklaus to be out playing golf in public, the Hope being only the second event of the year, but there he was, shooting opening rounds of 68 and 67. And though he followed with a killing 74 in the third round, a lackluster 71 on Saturday and a 69 on Sunday to finish tied for 28th, Nicklaus was pleased with himself and clearly eager to get his game in shape. "I'm excited about playing this year," he said. "I have an opportunity to make 1981 the best year I've ever had."
For Nicklaus, that means just one thing: improving his performance in the four majors. Where he finishes on the official money list means little to him anymore. "I'm never going to be in the money race again," he said, "because I don't play enough. Last year I was in 13 events, and I'll probably play that many this year. I measure my success by how I play in the Masters, the PGA and the U.S. and British opens."
Doing better in those events is indeed a Nicklaus-sized project. Last year he won the U.S. Open and the PGA, finished fourth in the British Open and was almost invisible in the Masters. Not too bad. Yet last week he was saying things like, "The most I've ever won in a year is two majors." True, but he has done it five times.
So Nicklaus' 1981 line sounds suspiciously like Grand Slam talk. Is it possible that Jack, who turned 41 three days after the Desert Classic, thinks he can win all four majors in one year, something no one has ever done? More interesting, can this be the same person who in 1980—approaching the psychological watershed age of 40 and coming off his most dismal season ever—was talking about playing less?
"I spent the first six months of 1980 trying to figure my way out of 1979, when I hadn't won anything," Nicklaus said last week. "And by the time I got it sorted out, there were only two months left. The Masters was disappointing. I felt sluggish and dull all week. Then I played Memorial, and tee to green my game was terrific but I putted godawful. Finally, it all came together at the Open. When the PGA was over in August, the season was over. It wasn't even two months."
Just after midnight on New Year's morning, a day after having returned to Florida from a ski trip to Vail, Colo. and Park City, Utah, Nicklaus had what he calls his "first good omen of 1981." Under the illumination of a floodlight trained on the putting green in his backyard, Nicklaus stood over a 30-footer and announced to the gathered celebrants, "This is my first putt of the new year. Let's see how it goes."
His stroke was sure and the ball never wavered on its way to the heart of the cup. Later that day, he went out to practice short shots and holed the first chip he hit.
Since then Nicklaus has played all but one day. "It's fun to do well. I enjoy it," he said, the enthusiasm surfacing as he described the pleasure of playing with his oldest son, Jackie, home for the holidays from the University of North Carolina, where he's a freshman. "Jackie can't wait to get started every day. He's up early, grabbing me, yelling, 'Come on, Dad!' It's great. My game is coming back quickly, especially the long shots. The putting takes longer."
After his 74 on Friday took him out of contention at Palm Springs, Nicklaus skipped a session on the practice tee to take a look at a course being constructed nearby. Tom Fazio, the architect, met him in the makeshift golf shop of the Vintage Club and led him on a tour in a golf cart. Vintage is an imaginative design that winds through a narrow valley at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains. As Fazio explained the details and difficulties of the project, Nicklaus listened intently.