Jack Nicklaus came to the last hole of the $342,770 Tournament Players Championship today knowing he needed a par to win. One wayward drive later he was in big trouble.

"I wanted to be sure to stay out of the water to the left . . . so I put the drive up against a sable palm on the right," he said. "All I was trying to do was make par, five. I tested, to see I wouldn't hit my hands on the swing. If I hit the tree, I knew I'd hit down near the end of the shaft of the three-iron."

The three-iron struck the palm, bending the shaft slightly. The ball squirted through the fairway, into the left rough.

"It was 160 yards from three, into the wind," Nicklaus reconstructed. "I took my six-iron, thought about it, and had visions of the ball flying into or over the ABC tower in back of the green. So I took my seven-iron and decided to 'fly it' a little, although it might be short. I was going to be sure not to go over. I could make a seven that way."

Nicklaus' shot barely made the green, narrowly carrying over a bunker that guarded the front. He two-putted, from 45 feet out, to nail down a one-stroke victory over Lou Graham, that was worth $60,000.

"The first putt looked like it would break right, to within six inches of the hole," Nicklaus said. "Instead, it moved off to the left, leaving a two, 2 1/2-foot putt."

By sinking that putt Nicklaus averted a playoff and a diffcult decision.

"The first shot I'd have normally hit on the first extra hole would have been with the three iron," he noted. "The club was in no shape to do it."

If the club was nearly broken, so were the spirits of most of the players alter four days of cold, windy saw-grass. Nicklaus shot a three-over-par 75 today for a total of 289, one over par.

Nicklaus did not make a birdie in the final 18 holes. Mark Hayes won with the same score last year.

"It's a long four days around this thing," Graham groaned. He was seeking his first victory since the 1975 Open. "But anyone other than Jack Nicklaus who says $34,200 (for finishing second) isn't a big thrill is crazy. That's more like first money in some tournaments."

Graham started the day one stroke behind Nicklaus and caught the leader only once, and then briefly. He birdied No. 11. Nicklaus bogeyed the 12th by three-putting and they were even, only to see Graham it a fairway bunker going up 14 and surrender his share of the lead by eventually missing a 10-footer.

Another bogey on 16 put Graham two back. Nicklaus' drive into the left rough on 17 led to his lead being cut in half but there was no more slip-page - although the 18th provided a thrill a shot.

"I'm not sure I won this tournament. It's probably better to say I survived it," Nicklaus observed. "But, no, I don't think par is too hard here. Par is supposed to be just that, as it is in most Opens. The more difficult courses tend to weed out for the best players although I know it gets to a point sometimes where it's frustrating for a lot of the fellows.

This marked the third time Nicklaus has won the TPC. He scored in 1974 at Atlanta and in 1976 at Inverrary (Florida).

"I couldn't be more confident, with the Masters coming up soon (April 6-9)," Nicklaus said. "I can't imagine I've ever been off to a better start on the tour."

Statistics support that statement. Nicklaus leads Tom Watson as the top money-winner, $157,065 in five tournaments. He won Inverrary and here and was second at Los Angeles and Doral (Florida).

Is he becoming superstitious about the good turn of events?

"No," Nicklaus replied. "I still try to keep three pennies in my pockets, at all times, for ball markers. There was a time I didn't have to worry about that. If didn't have'em, Angie (Angele Argea, his caddy) would have some . . . but Angie doesn't have pennies any more."