BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- Whether he's playing or watching, Jack Nicklaus believes in total commitment.
Like most well-to-do jocks in southern Florida, Nicklaus has season tickets for Miami's pro teams. He finally got around to checking out the NHL last week, and though the Florida Panthers dropped Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals to the Colorado Avalanche, it wasn't because a 56-year-old in the front row didn't get in the act.
"It was my first hockey game, but that's not to say I wasn't into it," said Nicklaus, who participated in a Panthers tradition. "My wife took about 10 plastic rats. Of course, I threw some on the ice."
Of course, if Nicklaus isn't satisfied with his golf game, he's not inclined to enter a tournament, which raises the issue of the cut when the second round of the U.S. Open is completed today at Oakland Hills Country Club.
Nicklaus shot 2-over 72 yesterday. On a day when only 12 players got under par, he was five strokes off the pace set by 1991 champion Payne Stewart and Woody Austin, who's in only his second year on the PGA Tour. They had 67s, a shot better than Lee Janzen and John Morse, and two better than the eight players at 69.
This is Nicklaus's 40th straight U.S. Open, and if he doesn't survive the cut today, another unprecedented streak could come to an end. This is also his 147th consecutive major championship, and the folks at Royal Lytham & St. Anne's are keenly interested in whether or not he'll enter the British Open and make it 148.
"I made an announcement earlier this year that I felt like this would probably be my last consecutive major," Nicklaus said. "This is 147 [in a row], and my wife thinks 150 sounds better. That means if I play well this week, she is sending me to Britain. I am not going to go if I miss the cut. If I make the cut and play reasonably well and it looks like I think I can compete, then I will probably go. If I don't . . . "
Nicklaus is not comfortable watching a leader board from the bottom. When he won the Masters a decade ago, it was his 18th major championship and 70th win on the PGA Tour. His only wins since have been on the Senior Tour, and Nicklaus is here only on a USGA exemption.
"My time has probably passed," Nicklaus said. "It's taken me a few years to be able to say that, but realistically, it's the truth. We all have our time. We all pass on, but I'm not going to go down easy, I'm going to go down fighting. I love to play, if I can be somewhat competitive. If I'm not, it's absolute torture. It gets under my skin."
Nicklaus already is pitching for a spot in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2000, when he'll be 60, but he abhors what he calls "ceremonial" golf.
He does, however, relish his role as an elder statesman. Nicklaus a bridge between persimmon woods and titanium shafts, and dTC it's no coincidence that a persistent theme in his monologues with the media is the manner in which technology has made the game easier.
"Most everyone hits the ball long today, and I think equipment has a lot to do with it," Nicklaus said when asked about the mammoth drives of Tiger Woods and John Daly. "I was longer than the guys I played with more than they are with the guys they play with. . . . I don't think the game is quite as difficult today. Technology changes things."
Nicklaus clearly admires Woods, the Stanford student who has matched his two U.S. Amateur titles. Two months ago, after a practice round at the Masters, Nicklaus went overboard. "Combine my six Masters with Arnold Palmer's four, and this kid will surpass that total. Technically, the best I've ever seen."
The praise was eerily reminiscent of the fallout from his first Masters win in 1963, when Bobby Jones said Nicklaus played a game "with which I'm not familiar."
"I want to watch the young man [Woods] play," Nicklaus said. "I obviously think he has a tremendous future. Maybe Hogan wanted to watch me for the same reason."
When Nicklaus was asked to reminisce about the U.S. Open, he started in 1957.
"I was 17 years old," Nicklaus said. "It was at Inverness [in Toledo, Ohio]. Played the first day with Tommy Jacobs and Freddie Wampler. Hit a 3-wood off the first hole down the middle of the fairway, hit a 7-iron on the green about 35 feet and made the putt. I parred the next two holes, and my name went up on the leader board.
"Drove it in the left rough on No. 4, made double bogey. My name went off the leader board. That's what I remember."
Nicklaus notched the first of his four U.S. Open titles in 1962, and he was also victorious in '67, '72 and '80. He's been second four times. His last top-10 finish in a major? It came a decade ago in the U.S. Open, a tie for eighth.
He won the Senior Open here five years ago, shooting a 65 in a playoff to beat Chi Chi Rodriguez by four strokes. Now the rough is a bit higher, and the putting stroke is shakier. The applause from the gallery on No. 18 yesterday was sympathetic when he nearly drove into someone's backyard and put his approach in the rough left of the green, but the roar was familiar when he got up and down to save a neat par.
"I had an opportunity to shoot a low score, but I missed seven or eight putts inside 15 feet," Nicklaus said. "It took me a few holes to wake up. I'm not used to playing at 8 o'clock. I only had a couple of bad tee shots, a couple of bad iron shots. From what I've been doing, that's not a bad number."
Not good enough, however, for Nicklaus.
The leaders . . .
Woody Austin ... 35-32-67
Payne Stewart .. 36-31-67
. . . and selected followers
Lee Janzen ...... 33-35-68
John Morse ...... 32-36-68
David Berganio .. 37-32-69
Bob Ford ........ 35-34-69
Philip Walton ... 34-35-69
Gary Trivisonno.. 34-35-69
Stewart Cink .... 34-35-69
Frank Nobilo .... 33-36-69
Masashi Ozaki ... 33-36-69
Paul Azinger .... 34-35-69
Tom Watson ...... 36-34-70
Jack Nicklaus ... 36-36-72
Greg Norman ..... 37-36-73
Complete scores, Page 6E
Pub Date: 6/14/96