Nicklaus last previous Open victory had been eight years earlier, when he hit the flagstick at 17 at Pebble Beach en route to victory. He came to the Open in 1980 on a downer. He was winless in 79, and in 1980 had come close only once in nine starts coming into the Open at Baltrusrol. To top it off, he had missed the cut the week before the Open, in Atlanta.
Nicklaus opened with a 63, which would have been 62 were it not for a missed three-footer at No. 18. The proof of his tee-to-green excellence is measured by the fact that Isao Aoki, whom he was paired with all four days, took only 23 putts to Nicklaus 26, but scored 68, five shots higher.
After 54 holes he had a 204, he was tied with Aoki after so-so rounds Friday and Sunday. Aoki three-putted at the second on Sunday and Nicklaus took the lead. He went two ahead with a birdie at 3, but was only in the lead by one as Aoki and he played the 17th hole.
Seventeen is a par-5 of 630 yards, the last of which is uphill. Nicklaus decided to come as close as possible to the flag in two, since Aoki is one of the worlds great putters and was a good bet to make birdie. So Jack boomed his driver and followed with a 1-iron, which was hit dead in the sweet spot. He had only a little sand-wedge for his third, the ball dying 20 feet from the pin.
Nicklaus then sank the putt, which was crucial because sure enough Aoki did, also, making birdie after nailing his approach to only five feet. On to the final hole, Nicklaus clung to his one-stroke lead.
Nicklaus got another scare at 18 when Aoki nearly holed his approach for eagle. Jack, however, gathered himself one more time and poured in another 20-footer for birdie to end it. As the tournament ended, the crowd chanted, Jack is back! Jack is back!
It never rang truer.
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