Nicklaus rises to occasion at U.S. Open with strong showing in broadcast booth GOLF

Phil Jackman

June 21, 1993|By Phil Jackman

The TV Repairman:

Even before Lee Janzen made like Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan and Silky Sullivan in the stretch run of the U.S. Open yesterday, ABC had itself a tap-in birdie.

DTC Oh, thank you, Jack Nicklaus, for being sufficiently down the scoring list after Round 3 Saturday that you played early and could join the legion of voices on the telecast.

Usually, Nicklaus has a tendency to get caught up in technical jargon and comes across as a teaching pro giving a lesson. Almost as soon as he had cleaned up and climbed into his commentary chair this time, however, he was there with the goods on the Janzen-Payne Stewart showdown.

One by one he shot down the cliches being thrust his way by his fellow golf-playing analysts, of all people. It was late in the telecast and after Janzen had pushed his nose in front by the slimmest of margins that Jack offered, "I know how they both feel in this situation" before offering true insight into situation after situation.

Nicklaus, recall, besides winning more tournaments than any man save for Sam Snead, holds the all-time record for finishing second -- something like five dozen times.

Of course, he and all his colleagues had lots to work with, considering the protagonists in this afternoon-long drama were matched against each other as the last twosome in the tournament and no other player ever got up to pose a serious threat.

When someone spoke of the pressure being applied to the 28-year-old victor Janzen by the veteran Stewart, a winner of the Open two years ago, Nicklaus answered, "I don't see that as being a problem for Lee."

He pointed out that the venerable Baltusrol layout was long and required a lot of patience to play successfully, "and that's the kind of course that Janzen will play well on."

It was pointed out that Janzen had fallen victim to the 36-hole cut in three previous Open appearances. "I don't pay any attention to that," Nicklaus said. "It has nothing to do with the way he's playing now."

In the player's case, that began when he showed up for his first practice round last Monday, coming off a third-place finish in the previous tour stop.

This second stop on the Grand Slam tour, if you think about it, actually glories in its failures as much as its successes.

For instance, until Janzen rapped in a 10-foot birdie putt on the home hole to tie Nicklaus' Open scoring record at 272, the 1993 tournament ran the risk of being remembered as the one where defending champion Tom Kite and such notables as Greg Norman, Masters champion Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros and a host of other name golfers weren't even invited to play on the weekend.

And who will soon forget a man tied for the lead on opening day, Joey Sindelar, tacking a 79 onto his 66 and being required to clean out his locker? As Jim McKay always says, it's the stuff these major championships are made of.

Sure, throughout the 24 hours of coverage provided by ESPN and ABC, perhaps McKay and essayist Jack Whitaker leaned a bit too heavily on history and tradition. By noon Saturday, you half-expected a twosome of Gene Sarazen and Ralph Guldahl to stride up to the first tee followed by Craig Wood and Ed Furgol.

But so what? Fully as much as baseball, golf is a game that is strongly enhanced, not to mention comfortable, leaning on its past.

It was shortly after Nicklaus had paid tribute to Janzen, saying, "It's nice to see a nice young man win," that Lee said his closing birdie to tie the record was a fluke. He admitted, "I couldn't have hit it there [on the green] if I tried to."

At the same time, Jack gave the vanquished Stewart his due, remembering, "Payne has had a bitter pill to swallow two of the last three weeks and he's handling it well." It was in Nicklaus' own Memorial Tournament three weeks ago when sure-winner Stewart, victory-less for two years now, was overtaken when Paul Azinger holed out from a sand trap on the last hole.

Starting with cable coverage Thursday morning at 10:30, not a great deal of confidence was present here that almost constant watching would be suitably rewarded. After all, constant review of the six previous championships held at Baltusrol, never-ending replays of Nicklaus' famed 1-iron to the 71st green in 1980 and the sight of putts being missed by feet, not inches, on the baffling greens wear thin after a while.

But the story built beautifully from the outset, character development was strong, the changing weather conditions added suspense and the potential for sudden plot switches and, all along, the pictures were superb.

Too often, it seems, ABC will go with a musical close to one of its hallmark event and the idea just doesn't fly. On this occasion, Satchmo Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" was as good a call as the work of Nicklaus.

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