As Jack Nicklaus was walking from the ninth green to the 10th tee at the Masters yesterday, he took a cup of water from a friend and said: "Three-O. Three-O."

Only Nicklaus would think in six-under-par 30 terms for the back nine at Augusta National. But the truth of the matter was that Nicklaus needed such a number to get into contention for the victory he so covets.

Nicklaus loves to win any tournament, but his golfing life is centered around winning the Masters and the three other majors. He wants to move ever deeper into the history books, but that slipped from being a probability to virtual impossibility in the space of four days this week.

Needing 66, which is what a back-nine 30 would have yielded yesterday, Nicklaus shot 69 and was too far behind too many fine players to have a realistic chance of winning his sixth Masters.

As he said: "I need 64 and the whole field needs to play bad for me to have a chance." And it was time once again for special significance to be seen with regard to Nicklaus.

This might be another trap, of course, the kind a Bear sets against men. Then again, historians, a generation from now, also might judge this week and this Masters as the pivotal point in the golfing life of Nicklaus, as the time he began to creep back toward mortality.

This is not to implay that Nicklaus will never win another tournament. Or even another major tournament. It does suggest that the once-enormous intensity Nicklaus brought to the majors may well be frayed.

Last year, he was involved in four critical shots under pressure to win two major championships, the Masters and British Open, and watched Tom Watson pull them off while he faltered. Yesterday, it was Hubert Green who shot the big round, a 65, that Nicklaus wanted so badly.

Nicklaus had been nothing less than sensational, even by his standards, in the weeks prior to the Masters. He won two tournaments, finished second twice and averaged $31,413 for his five appearances.

But he talked more confidently than anyone could recall before this Masters, as though he might have sensed a vulnerability not immediately obvious but which made him grasp for every possible advantage. Was he trying to psych the field?

Tom Watson thought so.

"Jack is scoring well," he said, "but to achieve that scoring, he's chipping in and making long putts. I'm sure he's not playing as well as he would like."

Indeed, for a man whose game "has never been this good," Nicklaus lost his touch in a hurry. The Masters is the major Nicklaus has the best chance to win, because it has the weakest field and the course most suited to his skills.

But supreme confidence sometimes has a way of being rattled sooner than it should and errors usually nothing more than irritants suddenly seem horrid. For Nicklaus, nothing illustrates the latter point more vividly than the four par-5s here.

In each of the five Masters Nicklaus has won, he treated the longest holes at Augusta as par-4s. For him, par here often is 68 instead of 72. This week, however he bogeyed the first par-5 the first day. Of the 12 possibilities for birdie at the par-5s, Nicklaus has converted only three.

Until after today's round, Nicklaus was publicly confident but privately dismayed. He had told the media "six shots isn't that much to make up" but admitted to friends he had been playing "survival golf."

"I'm not playing well enough to make it up," he said after the second round.

Nicklaus blamed his putter after rounds one and two, but in truth it was only his third most offensive tool. The driver had put him in awful position a few times; a tepid wedge led him to a double bogey.

Yesterday's third round yielded perhaps the most telling scene of all. Nicklaus suddenly pulled back as he was about to hit his iron approach on the ninth fairway.He gave his caddy a look of frustration. The words "I can't keep my mind on what I'm doing" floated as far as the gallery.

Nicklaus prides himself on being able to click on intense concentration on command. But the combination of prior sins and inability to convert three close putts for birdies in the third round apparently had at least slowed that concentration button.

The incident a hole earlier, in the eighth fairway, probably had been more comical than unnerving. There had been an unusually long delay, and a syrupy-voiced had yelled: "Jack, sugah, come on and play, 'cause I won't be able to live the rest of the week if you don't."

Nicklaus blushed.

A few moments later, she said: "How come you're so nice, Mr. Nicklaus? How come you take the time to talk to us?"

"Hey," Nicklaus said. "I got no place to go."

Then came the 10th hole - and his declaration to shoot six-under-par. His six-iron approach landed 3 1/2 feet from the cup and he finally made a birdie putt. At 12, his eight-iron shot was 18 inches from the hole and he sank another birdie putt. He was on the par-5 No. 13 in two shots and two-putted for his third bird in four holes.

Then the golfing 30 all of a sudden became the newspaper 30, the one that signals the end. There would be another birdie possibility, but no more birdies.

Ironically, the best nine Nicklaus played came after his gallery noticed an ominous sign. At the 10th hole, a Georgia state trooper began to give Nicklaus special attention, staying close enough not to be overly conspicuous but open enough to make his presence obvious.

"I'm just assigned to be here," he replied to a question.

Had he been assigned to Nicklaus the first two rounds?


Later, Nicklaus made light of the officer, who joked: "We got a bear to guard The Bear." Nicklaus said this sort of extra security was not unusual. It was learned Arnold Palmer was given similar treatment.

But the bear stayed too close to The Bear to satisfy skeptics, who remembered the death threat to Green in last year's U.S. Open. But Nicklaus kept his good grace, at least in public.

A slender reporter asked him if missing all those birdie putts wasn't frustrating.

Nicklaus smiled and grabbed the reporter's shoulders and shook him, saying: "It drives you up a tree."