Nicklaus comeback builds up the pressure at Firestone

The World Series of Gold, to be played again here next week at the Firestone South Course, never really has lived up to its grandiose name. During its formative years it sported only four players, who played only 36 holes. More recently it was staged so late in the year it got trampled in the public interest by football.

This time is different. The dates are early enough to make it a legitimate climax to the season, and the outcome could go a long way toward determining the Player of the Year.

Tom Watson, winner of the six tournaments in 1980 and more than $300,000, appeared a sure choice for that honor -- until last weekend, when Jack Nicklaus captured the PGA championship. Nicklaus thus became only the third man ever to win the US Open and the PGA in the same summer, joining Gene Sarazen (1922) and Ben Hogan (1948), and asserted himself as fully accredited challenger to Watson's dominance of the past three years.

Nicklaus has not done much other than win two major championships this year, but then he lives for little else as a golfer. To him one major is worth at least 10 lesser titles.

His record-setting victory in the US Open in June will go down as the high point of the year, coming as it did in our national championship and capping his comeback from a two-year slump.

Watson, 10 years Jack's junior, also won a big one this year -- the British Open at hollowed Muirfield with a performance so magnificent it dazzled even Nicklaus. Watson leads in major statistical categories like stroke average (right at 70), moeny (right at a small fortune as usual), and victories.

But he got off to a slow start in the PGA after a two-week layoff, and Nicklaus became the man of the hour. A popular Nicklaus enjoys the following that accrues to a legend, and if he could win the rich World Series -- first-place money is $100,000 -- on top of his victory in the PGA, he probably would be the Player of the Year.

Watson, on the other hand, could regain the upper hand by beating Nicklaus on the long, rigorous Firestone course, where both have played well. A win here should assure him top honors on the tour.

Jack's seven-stroke margin at Oak Hill in Rochester was the biggest ever in a PGA, and he matched Walter Hagen's legendary feat of winning the tournament five times. Ironically, Rochester was Hagen's hometown.

It was the 19th major championship for Nicklaus -- far more than anyone else has ever amased -- and marked the fifth time he has won two majors in a single year. He won his first major, the US Amateur, in 1959 -- 21 years ago.

He began the last day three strokes ahead of his closest pursuer, Lon Hinkle, and kept the field at bay by shooting 10 straight pars on the rugged Oak Hill course, then birdiening 11 and 13. His rounds were 70-69-66-69 for 274, six under par.

This from the 40-year-old blond who was dismissed by many "experts" because he didn't win a tournament in 1979.

He went to work at home in Florida over the winter and revamped every major phase of his game, an unheard of commitment for a professional athlete at such an advanced age of his career. The final part to the puzzle was his putting.

He says, "I started missing the short putts I was used to making, then I began to worry about leaving myself a long putt or chip shot, and pretty soon I was applying pressure to my iron play and my driving. The next thing you know you're afraid of missing all sorts of shots, which makes the short putts even more important.

"I finally determined that my only serious problem was my putting stroke, and I solved that during the Memorial tournament. Jack Grout, who's been my teacher since I was a kid, told me I was dragging the putter through the ball instead of stroking it. He told me to release the putter and hit the ball.

"My putting improved immediately and was very good in both the Open and the PGA. I'm not sure I've ever made as many vital putts as I made at Rochester. It was fun again."

In a reflective mood, Nicklaus also remembered that he might not have won 19 major tournaments if not for Woody Hayes, the former Ohio State football coach.

When Jack was 15 and growing up in columbus, his father asked Hayes, a family friend, if JAck should continue to play football.

Snapped Hayes, "Your boy has a future in golf. Get him out of football."

Nicklaus never played another down -- and has never regretted it.

Twenty-five years later he is returning to Ohio for the World Series of Golf, with a chance to become Player of the Year and unseat Tom Watson. It is the sort of challenge to which he so often has responded.

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