Return of a superstar

The hastily improvised sign on the leader board at the US Open golf championship said it all: "Jack is back." Jack Nicklaus, the greatest player in the game's history, won a tournament Sunday for the first time in almost two years, smashing the record in our national championship with an 8-under-par 272 at the Baltusrol Golf Club, three shots better than the standard he had shared with Lee Trevino.

It was his 18th major championship and moved him into a select foursome of players who have won the Open four times, along with Willie Anderson, Bobby jones, and Ben Hogan. Not even those legendary players dominated the game as Nicklaus has, however. Jack, with a second victory at Baltusrol, now has won Opens 18 years apart.

This may have been his sweetest win of all.

After failing to capture a tournament last year for the first time in his storied career, he seriously considered retiring at the age of 40. Instead, he redoubled his efforts to prepare for the 1980 season, probably telling himself that if he didn't make something happen in the major championships this year he would quit.

He worked harder on his game than he ever had, changing every major phase from his driving to his putting. No one can remember a superior player reworking his game to drastically, let alone so late in his career.

By flattening his swing plane slightly, Nicklaus regained 30 yards of lost distance off the tee to place himself back among the tour's longest drivers. He revamped his chipping and his pitching. And he labored over his putting, which remained a big question mark coming into the Open.

Not long ago he went back to his old putting style, positioning his head more behind the ball, and the results gradually got better. At Atlanta the week before the Open he missed the cut, but shot a good second round and began sinking putts he'd been missing.

Then at Baltusrol everything fell into place in the first round. "I finally got over the ball and felt a connection between the putter, the ball, and the hole," he said. And he blistered the course on opening day with a record-tying 63, taking advantage of the old greens that stayed somewhat soft from recent rain.

The rest of the week he looked like the Nicklaus of yesteryear over putts, confident at any distance, concentrating so hard he sometimes seemed to will the ball into the hole. The best fast-greens putter of his time, Nicklaus ha always liked the shaved-down, Open putting conditions that lesser men deplore, and he made the big putts he needed to save par or pick up a birdie when his momentum was sagging.

"All week I kept wondering when the wheels were going to come off, the way they'd been coming off the past year and a half," he said, "but they never did. The birdie putt on 17 Sunday was the clincher. I had 22 or 23 feet, uphill, right to left, the ideal pressure putt -- and I knocked it right in the backof the cup. That enabled me to go to 18 with a two-shot lead and play the hole on my terms rather than somebody else's."

Trailing by two was Isao Aoki, a world-class player little known in this country whose magical short game kept him close throughout and whose runner-up 274 would have won any Open except this one. Tom Watson, still looking for his first Open title, tied for third with Keith Fergus and Lon Hinkle at 276.

Nicklaus and Aoki were paired together all four days of the tournament, leading Jack to joke that "I know a lot more Japanese than I did before I came here." Both birdied 18 in uproarious conditions as the huge crowd surged out of control and then had to be restrained from joining the players on the green.

"Aoki is a marvelous player from 100 yards in to the hole," Nicklaus said. "We played almost identical back nines the last day and it was one of my best finishing nines ever."

Nicklaus closed with a 33 after a one-over-par 35 on the front side, which lists no par fives. Troubled by erratic driving on the fifth, sixth, and seventh holes, he switched to a three-wood off the tee on the second nine and got improved accuracy.

"On the tenth tee I told myself that I had to put it together and win," he recalls. "The previous two days I had chances to pull away from the field on the back nine and shot 38 both times. I told myself not to do taht again. I don't think I hit anything except shots that were exactly what I was trying the rest of the way."

Nicklaus birdied the long tenth hole with a three-wood, seven iron, and short putt, and moved out of a tie for the lead at five under par with Fergus, a solid-swinging youngster who went to the University of Houston. He was never caught after that, although Aoki kept it interesting.

His winning check was $55,000 plus $50,000 from a golf magazine for breaking the tournament record, a welcome Father's Day present. "Does the tournament end on Father's Day next year too?" Nicklaus, the father of five, wanted to know. "I've won all four of my Opens on Father's Day."

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