Pebble Beach, Calif. — It is not possible to write of the US Open Golf Championship or Pebble Beach, the grand old course where it is being contested this week, without dwelling on Jack Nicklaus.
Nicklaus is shooting for a record fifth Open victory and an 18th major championship overall - or 20th if you count his two US Amateur titles. Another interesting statistic is that one of his Open victories came 20 years ago at Oakmont and another occurred 10 years ago here - which is more than enough to excite the game's decaphiles.
In addition to an Open, Jack won one of his US Amateur titles and three Crosby tournaments at Pebble Beach, the only public course to ever entertain an Open. He calls this course his favorite in all the world, and he ranks the eighth hole, a long par four with a carry over an arm of the Pacific Ocean, the best two-shotter he has played.
In sum, the US Open, Pebble Beach, and the success of Jack Nicklaus are all but synonymous.
Defending champion David Graham writing in Golf Digest said: ''. . .He's played Pebble better than any man alive, and he would love to win a record fifth Open there. He's still making changes in his game to improve, and I think he's playing the finest golf of his career and will win more major championships.''
While Nicklaus did not win a major last year, or anything else for that matter, he demonstrated his consistency in the big ones by posting the best combined scoring average of any player at all four (the Masters, the US and British Opens, and the PGA). This year he ended his mini-slump with an impressive win at the Colonial in Texas on a course he does not feel suits his game, and finished third in the Kemper at Congressional behind the rampaging Walrus, Craig Stadler, and Spain's Seve Ballesteros.
Masters champion Stadler must be considered at least a co-favorite on the strength of his seven-stroke margin at Congressional and his near-miss at Pebble in the Crosby earlier in the year. He too loves this course.
Stadler is the season's only three-time winner and leads the money list with earnings of $312,000. If he wins, he will become the fifth man in history to take both the Masters and the US Open in the same year, joining Craig Wood (1941 ), Ben Hogan (1953), Arnold Palmer (1960), and Nicklaus (1972).
Another who has peaked at the right time and cannot be overlooked is Ray Floyd, who has won two of the last three tour stops. The 1976 Masters champion has always been a streak player, and his confidence is soaring now after a decisive five-stroke victory at Memphis last week that catapulted him from seventh place to second on the money list.
A good place to look for prospective Open champions is the list of past winners, particularly on a demanding course like this which calls for both length off the tee and finesse hitting to and putting the small greens. Look for Jerry Pate and Hale Irwin, for example.
Pate, the 1976 champion, is a beautiful swinger of the club who can win anywhere when his putter is working. He won the Tournament Players Championship on the terribly difficult new Pete Dye course.
Hale Irwin is a two-time Open winner (1974 and 1979) with enough determination for an army. He can control the ball and play masterful iron shots.
Tom Watson badly wants to win his first Open after accomplishing just about every other worthy goal in the past six years. He played Pebble frequently as a student at Stanford, and has won two Crosbys. He must keep his driver shots out of the dense rough and not be overly aggressive putting the slick greens.
Tom Kite is the straightest, most consistent player on the tour. He is still looking for his first major. Kite isn't long but his putting is improving all the time.
The best streak player is Lanny Wadkins, who won the PGA championship at Pebble in 1977. When he's hot, he's virtually unbeatable and he's been hot much of the year. So has young Scott Hoch, who like Wadkins went to Wake Forest. Hoch is suddenly well-entrenched among the top 10 money winners.
Bobby Clampett is another up-and-coming young player having a good year. He grew up in this area, still lives nearby, and knows the course as well as anyone.
Another local favorite is Nathaniel Crosby, who hosts the annual tournament here created by his late father, Bing. Nathaniel earned his berth by winning the US Amateur up the coast in San Francisco last autumn.
For more human interest there is 1960 winner and four-time runnerup Arnold Palmer, now 52 and fresh from a Senior Tour victory at Marlboro, Mass. Also noteworthy is the fact that the field includes both 1965 champion Gary Player and his son, Wayne, which officials say marks the first time a father and son have ever played in the Open.
The biggest threats among the foreign contingent are Ballesteros, who has won several times overseas already in 1982, and Japan's Isao Aoki, who has contended before.
Not to be overlooked, however, is Graham, who has not played especially well since he won at Merion a year ago but who is a chap for the big occasion.
''I know I can win majors and I will give up that trophy with a great deal of reluctance,'' the Australian veteran says. ''I'll be under extra pressure as defending champion, but that can be a plus, and Pebble is just about my favorite course in the world. It's beautiful country here. I relish the entire atmosphere.''
Indeed, this scenic stretch of coastline was once described by Robert Louis Stevenson as ''the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.'' With ABC televising the final two rounds of the 72-hole test over the weekend after ESPN offers the opening two on Thursday and Friday, the armchair viewer is in for a true vicarious treat.