Nicklaus admits that he has been distracted by business worries, in particular about a couple of his many golf-course and real-estate deals. But he says he is not in a financial crunch, which makes it just a coincidence that he recently signed as a spokesman for Nabisco Brands and is in negotiation with ABC-TV to appear on golf specials for five years. "The ABC contract is with the lawyers right now," Nicklaus says.
With his business dealings weighing heavily on his shoulders, to say nothing of his checkbook, it was no wonder he was floundering on the golf course. His irons and woods were still Jack Be Nimble, but his putter had been pure Tip O'Neill. Take Thursday's opening round, for instance. He had 11 putts inside 15 feet and made one. On Sunday's front nine he missed two four-footers. "If I could just putt," he said Friday, "I might just scare somebody. Maybe me."
But that seemed fanciful, and it wasn't just newspaper writers typing him off. CBS analyst Ken Venturi told USA Today , "Jack's got to start thinking about when it is time to retire."
After all, who could take Nicklaus seriously after his opening rounds of 74 and 71? Besides, by Saturday, the leader board was doubly stocked with people you had actually heard of. One was a certain swashbuckling Spaniard who has been out of work much of this year, what with his father's recent death and his sword-fighting with PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman. Coming into the Masters, Ballesteros had played only nine competitive rounds in all and had made precious little money. "Ninety dollars," he joked. "All on practice-round bets with [Ben] Crenshaw and [Gary] Player."
Still, Ballesteros's rapier hardly looked rusty, and when he opened with a convincing 71-68 and a one-shot lead, nobody could make him less than the favorite for his third coat. "They ought to name this place after him," said Price. "He hits it so long and so high and draws it so well and is so imaginative around the greens that I don't think he'll ever finish out of the top five here."
Price's game isn't all that ill-fitting, either. On a windless Saturday that Watson said left the course as "defenseless as I've ever seen it," Price's 63 was a course record, a Jackson Pollock splash of birdies — nine in a series of 12 holes — that broke the course record of 64, set in 1940 by Lloyd Mangrum and equaled by Nicklaus and four others. That left him at five under, and when Seve got heavy on Saturday, turning a one-shot lead at 17 into a one-shot deficit by the time he hit the clubhouse, Price found himself tied with Ballesteros, Langer and Donnie Hammond, one shot behind Norman.
Everybody genuflect. It's Sunday morning in the cathedral of golf, and the high priests are all here. Norman leading, with Price, Langer, Ballesteros, Watson, Tommy Nakajima of Japan and Kite all within two shots, not to mention an altar boy, Hammond. Nicklaus, with a Saturday 69 ("The first time I've broken 70 since I can't remember when," he said), was looking surprised but quite harmless at four back.
"My son Steve called me at the house we're renting this morning," Nicklaus said, "and he asked me, 'Well, Pop, what's it going to take?' And I said, 'Sixty-six will tie and 65 will win.' And he said, 'Well, go ahead and do it.' "
But as Sunday's round began, Nicklaus looked as if he was going to keep on doing what he had been doing, which was knocking the ball tight and putting loose. He missed four-footers at the 4th and the 6th, and when he got to the 9th tee, he was right where he started — two under. He was also five shots behind Norman.
Then, suddenly, all heaven broke loose.
Playing two groups ahead of Ballesteros and Kite, four ahead of Price and Norman, Nicklaus finally got a birdie putt to drop, an 11-footer. Four shots back.
At the 10th, he birdied from 25 feet, which should have put him three back, except for an odd set of goings-on at No. 8, where both Kite and Ballesteros had left the hole without ever pulling their putters. Kite had holed a wedge from 81 yards for an eagle, followed by Ballesteros from 40 for another eagle. Not only did that speed up play considerably, but it also kept Nicklaus four back of the leader, now Ballesteros.