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Just call it Jack's place

Of all the places that are inexorably linked to him _ Augusta National, Pebble Beach, Muirfield _ perhaps none define Jack Nicklaus' career better than Baltusrol Golf Club.

It is here where Nicklaus experienced two monumental victories, both at crucial times in his path toward greatness _ the first putting an end to an era, the second launching the beginning of another.

The fact that they occurred in the last two U.S. Opens to be played at Baltusrol's Lower Course _ in 1967 and 1980 _ makes them even more memorable, although it is odd that Nicklaus has difficulty conjuring up images of the layout that he played so beautifully.

"This may sound crazy to you, but I've won the golf tournament twice at Baltusrol and couldn't tell you the golf course," he said. "I get lost after the fifth hole, until about 13, 14 and 15. It's ridiculous, as many times as I've played that golf course, that I still get mixed up."

Nicklaus, 53, jokes of his fading memories, but by now they are flooding back as he plays practice rounds in anticipation of the 93rd U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at the course where he won two of his four U.S. Open titles (the others were in 1962 at Oakmont and in 1972 at Pebble Beach). Both times, he set U.S. Open scoring records, the last of which still stands.

When Nicklaus came to Baltusrol as a 27-year-old in 1967, he was not the popular player that he is today. Challenging Arnold Palmer's throne had brought him grief from galleries, although he was regarded as the game's best player.

Nicklaus defeated Palmer in a playoff to win the 1962 U.S. Open, won the Masters in 1963, '65 and '66, and also won the PGA Championship in '63 and the British Open in '66. At that young age, he already had done what Palmer never has been able to do _ win a career Grand Slam.

But Palmer, 37, was still the King. Arnie's Army was poised to help him win another U.S. Open. Some, standing near bunkers or the rough, held signs that read: "Hit it here, Jack."

Nicklaus was playing poorly before the Open. He had won only once that year and missed the cut at the Masters (he's done that only twice in 35 years). Particularly bad was Nicklaus' putting.

Just before the tournament, Deane Beman (who is now the commissioner of the PGA Tour), suggested Nicklaus switch putters. A friend of Beman's gave Nicklaus a Bullseye model with the head painted white, which Barbara Nicklaus named "White Fang."

Nicklaus gained confidence by shooting 62 in practice, and after scores of 71-67, he trailed Palmer by one shot. They were paired together for the final two rounds.

Worrying too much about each other, the legends were unable to do much on Saturday. Neither made a birdie through 16 holes, although Nicklaus birdied the last two to shoot 72, while Palmer had a 73. Both players trailed amateur Marty Fleckman (who shot a final-round 80) entering the last round.

On Sunday, Palmer shot 69, but Nicklaus made birdies at the third, fourth and fifth holes to take a lead he never gave up. He shot a final-round 65 and finished at 275, breaking a U.S. Open scoring record held by Ben Hogan since 1948.

"The thing I remember the most about that was coming down the end and playing with Arnold in the last two rounds," Nicklaus said recently. "And the 65 I shot was just one of the best rounds of golf that I'd ever want to play."

That tournament effectively put an end to Palmer's reign. He never won another major championship. Meanwhile, Nicklaus transformed into arguably the greatest player ever.

In the 13 years between Opens at Baltusrol, Nicklaus shed his "Fat Jack," image, losing 40 pounds. He became the Golden Bear while starting his own company, designing golf courses, accumulating dozens of endorsements, and of course, winning golf tournaments.

He won a third U.S. Open, two more Masters, three PGAs and a British Open.

But by 1980, his career was in decline. He had turned 40 and was coming off his worst year. For the first time since turning pro, he did not win a tournament. And after finishing no lower than fourth on the money list since 1962, he dropped to 71st. There were whispers that he should retire.

"Oddly enough, when I got back to Baltusrol, I started feeling confident again," Nicklaus said. "I had revamped my swing earlier in the year and worked with (longtime teacher) Jack Grout on flattening my swing. I also worked with Phil Rodgers on changing my whole short game."

Nicklaus opened the tournament with a 7-under-par 63, tying the U.S. Open single-round record set by Johnny Miller in 1973 and matched earlier that day by Tom Weiskopf. Nicklaus had a 3-footer for birdie on the 18th hole to break the record, but he missed.

The rest of the tournament was between him and Japan's Isao Aoki, who shot a first-round 68 and shared the third-round lead with Nicklaus. They played together in all four rounds.

As they went to the par-5 17th on Sunday, Nicklaus led by two shots. Aoki put his approach 5 feet from the hole, and Nicklaus was 20 feet from the pin. Figuring Aoki would make it, Nicklaus desperately wanted to sink his putt so he would maintain a two-stroke advantage going to the last hole.

"It was a putt I had been making for 15 years when I needed it," he said. "But it was the kind of putt I hadn't made for nearly two years."

Both made their putts, and Nicklaus added another birdie at the 18th, breaking the Open scoring record he had set 13 years earlier and finishing at 272 _ still a U.S. Open record. He became only the fourth player _ along with Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan _ to win four U.S. Opens.

That figured to be Nicklaus' last victory, but two months later he added another at the PGA Championship, then won PGA Tour events in 1982 and 1984 before his historic Masters victory at age 46 in 1986.

Seven years have passed since Nicklaus' last tour victory, and even he would have to admit it's too much to ask for him to win again.

Wouldn't he?

"I think I still have one left in me," Nicklaus said. "There are certain tournaments, certain courses, where I think I have a chance to win. I still think I can fool some people again."

Nicklaus has not won a tournament of any kind for 23 months _ dating to his U.S. Senior Open title in July 1991. That was the length of time Nicklaus had gone without a win before his victory here in 1980.

Although he is not expected to win, just teeing off Thursday will continue a remarkable streak: He has played in 37 consecutive Opens and 126 consecutive major championships as a professional.

U.S. Open facts

When: Thursday through Sunday.

Course: Baltusrol Golf Club, Springfield, N.J.

Purse: $1.6-million, with $290,000 to the winner.

Course record: 63, by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf in the first round of the 1980 U.S. Open.

Past U.S. Open winners at Baltusrol: Willie Anderson (1903), Jerome Travers (1915), Tony Manero (1936), Ed Furgol (1954), Jack Nicklaus (1967, 1980).