Nicklaus out to put dismal '79 behind him

Can Jack come back? That's the cloudy question hanging over the PGA tour as Jack Nicklaus launches his 1980 schedule this week at the Bing Crosby national Pro-Am in Pebble BEach, Calif.

In 1979 Nicklaus suffered through his worst year ever by far. For the first time in his professional career he failed to win a tournament, finishing an embarrassing 71st on the official money list. He missed making the US Ryder Cup team and was so frustrated that for a while he seriously considered retirement.

All this happened unexpected to a superstar who is, on record, probably the greatest player in the history of the grand and ancient game, having won 17 major championships and earned more than $3 million.

No one was more suprised at his showing last year than Nicklaus himself. "If's hard for me in my own mind to accept," he says, "but as poorly as I played , I took back and analyze it and see that I came within three strokes of achieving half my goals for the year."

Nicklaus, it is too easy to forget, establishes higher standards than most of the rest of us. At this stage of his career, the only thing in golf that's important to him is adding to his record in the four major championships: the Masters, US and British Opens, and the PGA Championships. Otherwise, he says, "I have nothing left to prove," which is why he has cut his schedule to a dozen or so tournaments a year.

In the 1979 Masters, Jack came within a shot of getting into the playoff with Tom Watson, Ed Sneed, and the eventual winner, Fuzzy Zoeller. In the British Open, he wound up an encouraging second.

"Had I won the British Open, I'd have had a fairly good year, to my way of thinking," he says, "even though the public might not agree. But I didn't win it, and there's no escaping the fact it was my most disappointing year since I've been playing the game.

"Golf, like anything else, requires a commitment. I though I made that commitment last year, but I just didn't play well enough to make it click. If that means I have to work a little harder this year on that same sort of schedule, I will. I'm not averse to working harder -- I never have been."

For the first time, friends say, Nicklaus practiced extensively during the off season at his home in south Florida.Beating buckets of practice balls has never greatly appealed to him, but this winter he found the enthusiasm to do it.

Says one close associate: "He has that determined gleam in his eye, and he's setting aside more time to work on his game. He's stung by his performance last year and doesn't want it to happen again this year. I wish he'd play more tournaments, to keep a sharper competitive edge, but at this stage of his career he doesn't have the motivation. He just isn't interested in the lesser events."

The same friend would not be suprised to see Nicklaus semi-retire to a role as a "ceremonial golfer" if he could come up with one more big season, perhaps another reason he's gearing up for a major effort this year. Nicklaus, who turned 40 this month, has always said he would not play the tour regularly when he was past his prime.

After overcoming his discouragement with last year's record and reflecting on his game, he seems to view his predicament as a slump rather than the end of the road (it should be pointed up that Nicklaus, the consummate sportsman, never bemoans his decline in public -- only to himself).

"I've read that I was finished every time I've been in a slump," he says. "I've never had a slump as devastating as this one, but if I were 30 years old nobody would be making such a fuss about it. When I no longer can win, I'll know it."

His problem, Nicklaus says, is his putting. He hit the ball as well as ever last year, but couldn't make a putt when he needed one. that in turn put extra pressure on his chipping and pitching -- long the weakest parts of his game.

More specifically, he thinks his putting stance has changed for the worse, and he has been working to regain his old style.

"In the final analysis, it's probably more psychological than anything else," he says. " if you make a couple of important putts, suddenly everthing's OK again."

It has been pointed out by veteran Nicklaus-watchers that he has played the game under the most extreme competitive conditions for 18 years now, with a painstakingly deliberate approach to putting, and perhaps it's inevitable that the pressure is beginning to show. Once his putting begins to slip, they reason , he may never completely get it back. Witness the plight of Arnold Palmer in recent years.

That sad time has to come for Jack Nicklaus, as it does for all golfers, but he doesn't think it's here yet -- and he is demonstrating a new determination to prove he can still win.

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