After two rounds of the Glen Campbell-Los Angeles Open, the leader board read: Gil Morgan seven under par, Jack Nicklaus four under par. And somebody recalled the wisdom of an obscure touring pro named Frank Boynton.
"I only count the strokes," he once said, "that I'm behind the people I know." So you did not have to be hit upside the head with a one-iron to know who the real leader was.
And when Nicklaus and Dr. Whatshisstuff teed off tied for the lead in today's final round much of the crowd was ready to concede Nicklaus his 64th tour victory. Halfway through the final round that seemed probable - then Morgan refused to fold and Nicklaus suddenly began playing mortal golf.
Three bad swings and one irreverent twig conspired against Nicklaus. Had the twig known beforehand whose shot it would spoil it might have acted otherwise, but there it was 10 yards down the bank at the 15th green and there was Nicklaus's ball resting against it.
"I had to hit through the twig," Nicklaus said later. "And I didn't get it (the ball) to the top of the hill. Then I hit a chip three feet by and missed the (bogey) putt. That basically was the tournament."
And that basically increased the intrigue involving Nicklaus this year as he tries to make yet another run at the history books. A bad year for Nicklaus is no victories in the four major tournaments - and this year he is trying for more by playing less.
Nicklaus always has taken special pride in his ability to turn on intense concentration in an instant, to be deply involved with family and business and then - click - suddenly devote every fiber to the tournament at hand.
That ability will be especially tested this year, because he has announced a cutback in a tour schedule already light by most standards. He played in 18 tournaments last year and may well play in fewer than 15 this year.
The PGA seemed to anticipate that. Or perhaps it really was coincidence that the day before Nicklaus announced his change the PGA amended its rules so that anyone who has played the tour 15 years and won 20 or more tournaments would be exempt from having to play at least 15 events a year.
There are some on the tour - among them Frank Beard who believe Nicklaus ought to be made to play more, not fewer, tournaments to protect the sponsors. Others insist he has given the sport so much already he should be entitled to do as he pleases and let Watson and the rest of the tour assume that burden. Still others never think beyond the next five-iron shot.
"If Jack cuts back too much, I think he'll be making a mistake," Gene Littler, a 24-year veteran, told Golf Digest. "The only way to keep your game sharp is by playing. I don't see how even Jack could play only occasionally and still continue to win.
"I'm not talking about striking the ball. He'll always have that ability. It's the knack of scoring, the finesse shots, that go during a layoff . . . I'll say this, though, whatever he does has always worked pretty well for him."
Nicklaus finished in a tie for 29th at the Crosby, and entered the L.A. Open for reasons that included a favor to the host, Glen Campbell, and the fact that Riviera is a fine test and this is the first pro tournament he ever played.
Yes, the Nicklaus pro career that has seen him earn more than $3 million began at the L.A. Open in 1962. And the prediet Nicklaus, then known as Ohio Fats in some circles, won all of $33.33.
Once the L.A. Open was as prestigious as any stop on the tour, just a shade under the majors because it was the first stop and every player was anxious to get under way again. Now most of the major attractions are elsewhere. Watson is resting; Arnold Palmer is in Australia, where he nearly won a tournament - at last - until some Leon Spinks-type beat him in a playoff yesterday.
Still, Nicklaus was not among the leaders in a less than glittering field with a one-over 72 Thursday and an even-par front nine Friday.
"My stupidity level was pretty high," he said later. Then he sudenly got smart - and lucky - and went five under on the back side, with four birdie putts from 11 to 15 feet and another that just lipped out.
"I'd been eight shots behind the leader (Morgan) on the 10th tee," he said, "and I cut that to three. I'm proud to have turned a so-so round and play golf the way I think I know how to play."
On the ninth tee today, Nicklaus seemed in charge once again, with a two-stroke lead over Morgan. Then, all of a sudden, what Littler had said about what layoffs began to seem significant.
Before he could reach the 10th tee, Nichlaus had botched a chip an bogeyed. Morgan, up ahead, had birdied No. 9. Morgan birdied No. 10 and Nicklaus managed to avoid the birds that would put him back into a tie by missing seven - and three-foot putts.
Nicklaus got that tie with a 13-foot bird at 12 and hit a fine chip to save par at 14. Then came that twig, which was not quite what the good doctor ordered but surely was helpful.