LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- On his walk to the first tee at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club yesterday, golfer Rocco Mediate glanced at a leader board and quickly performed a double-take. He smiled. He shook his head. For an instant, he could not believe what he was seeing.
On second thought, maybe he could. Like anybody else on the grounds at Lytham on another atypically bright, warm and tranquil summer day along the northwest coast of England, he simply had no choice. There near the top of the 125th British Open was the name of Jack William Nicklaus, the 56-year-old grandfather of eight who earlier this year did not think his game was refined enough to plunk down the pounds to travel overseas for his 35th Open.
"My God, look at him go," Mediate said in wonderment. "Just because he's a little bit older doesn't mean he's forgotten how to do it. Jack can win this golf tournament. He's the best. I think every golfer here would love to steal a little piece of him and keep it forever."
Nicklaus shot 5-under-par 66 at Lytham yesterday and is at 7-under 135 midway through the championship. He stands one shot off the 36-hole lead shared by Irishman Paul McGinley, who earned his spot through local qualifying, and American Tom Lehman, who is making a habit of barging into contention when stakes are highest.
All McGinley did yesterday was tie the course record with a 65 that included a hole-in-one at the 164-yard ninth hole and six birdies. Lehman, who tied for second at last month's U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, was nearly as impressive, shooting his second consecutive 67, including four birdies without a bogey.
But the co-leaders could only garner a small sliver of the limelight on a glorious day that clearly belonged to Nicklaus, who won his first claret jug at Muirfield at age 26 and three decades later is gunning for his fourth. Should he continue to spin his everlasting magic, Nicklaus would become the oldest player to capture one of golf's four major championships.
The oldest? Julius Boros, who was 52 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship.
Thursday, Nicklaus hardly could rise from his bed and nearly withdrew, not wishing to tie up a spot that a healthy alternate could use. The theme of the day was "Jack's back." Yesterday, the words were the same, albeit with a more exciting twist: Jack's back!
"I've been thinking about a fourth Open for a lot of years," said Nicklaus, who owns 18 professional major championships to go with two U.S. Amateur titles. "I'd certainly like to get in contention and have that chance."
The presence of Nicklaus brought extra strength to a championship leader board already bathing in it. Joining Nicklaus one shot behind the leaders were South African Ernie Els (67) of Lake Nona and Sweden's Peter Hedblom (65). A group two shots out at 136 includes four Americans -- Mark O'Meara and Corey Pavin, Loren Roberts and Mark McCumber -- as well as three-time British Open champion Nick Faldo of England, Fiji's Vijay Singh and Ireland's Padraig Harrington.
Other formidable names in striking distance heading into the third round: Fred Couples (70--137), European Ryder Cup teammates David Gilford (67--138) and Mark James (68--138), and Australia's Greg Norman (68--139), who overcame a slow start yesterday by playing his last 12 holes in 6-under par.
"There are so many guys up there, it would be foolish to think you have any kind of control in his tournament," Lehman said. "If I thought about all the guys who were tied with me or were behind me when I was playing well, I probably wouldn't be able to take the club back. But I do feel that when I'm playing well, there is nobody out here who I'm afraid of."
Nicklaus made five birdies in his first 14 holes, but appeared in danger of tarnishing his bogey-free round at the 463-yard, par-4 15th hole, when his drive bounded into one of Lytham's many diabolical pot bunkers. He wedged out to the fairway, knocked ** an 8-iron to 15 feet and canned the putt for par. He made pars at the next three holes to preserve 66, barely missing out on a share of the lead when his 7-foot birdie putt grazed the right edge of the cup.
Asked if he were having any fun, Nicklaus said: "Don't you enjoy 66s? If that's a form of torture, then torture me every day."
Among those players not surviving the cut at 1-over 143: U.S. Open champion Steve Jones, Colin Montgomerie, Ian Woosnam, Steve Elkington, Davis Love III, Fuzzy Zoeller, Craig Parry, Tom -- Kite, Lee Janzen, and Seve Ballesteros, who won Open titles at Lytham in 1979 and 1988.
Pub Date: 7/20/96