An hour later, Jack Nicklaus would find it funny, saying , "I wasn't sure the golf ball was round out there today." But his earlier mood had been as ugly as the clouds overhead, for there he was the greatest golfer of at least a generation, winner of more major tournaments than anyone, standing on the 18th tee needing par to break 80.

Nicklaus gives us a glimpse of his mortality every so often, and yesterday at the PGA Championship, over the unforgiving Oakmont Country Club course, he gave serious hackers a twinge of hope. He shot 41 on the front nine. Oncehe had to swing left-handed; another time he hit a 17-foot putt 20 feet past the hole.

Two weeks ago, during the final round of his victory in Philadelphia. Nicklaus said he felt his game slipping ever so slightly. But this was ridiculous.

As he walked from tee to green on nearly every hole, Nicklaus would be seen and draw healthy applaus from the fans lining the fairways. Then he and the man carrying a standard with his score would come into focus and everyone would gasp and let out a collective. "Oh, no."

"I have never ended up in so many positions where I had virtually no shot," he said. "On the first, second and third holes, to begin with. Then I finally hit a fairway and ended up with the ball in a divot, with sand in it. That's like a bad lie in a fairway bunker."

So how does a legend find himself in such an embarrassing position on the final tee, in a tournament he wants badly to win? Well, it begins with the first shot of the first day, a drastic hook that causes a bogey-5.

And then comes an even worse tee shot, so close to a tree he must punch at the ball left-handed. Which leaves him in almost as bad a position - and ends with double-bogey 6.

Nicklaus was three over after two holes, four over after five holes, five over after six holes and six over after eight holes, when he found another of Oakmont's bunkers. A bird at teh relatively tame ninth hole still put him in no mood for the fellow waiting in the rough at No. 10.

His tee shot had been so bad Nicklaus actually found himself in good position for a short-iron approach, the ball sitting in trampled grass but near a fat fellow who decided to play analyst.

"You always play this fast?" the man asked Nicklaus.

"Fast?" Nicklaus said. "We've been playing like turtles. We've had to wait on nearly every shot like now."

"But it looks like you're rushin' your shots," the man continued

"Yeah," Nicklaus snapped, clearly irritated, "rushin' to make more mistakes."

A moment later, the scwol still obvious, Nicklaus hit a dream of an eight-iron, one that drew left just enough to leave a 17-foot try for bird, or at least a routine par. He was somewhat lucky to leave the hole with a bogey.

Most of Oakmont's greens are about as slick as Yul Brynner's head, with No. 10 especially wicked and sloping Jerry McGee said it was "like trying to hold the ball on the hood of your car." From a possible bird, Nicklaus faced an almost impossible par, from 20 feet. His bogey putt dropped in from three feet.

"I'd known from the fourth hole this wasn't my day," he said. It would get worse, quickly. He bogeyed the short 11th hole after finding the deep rough to hit seven over par. Possibly, his gallery would witness history.

As near as could be determined, Nicklaus had shot 80 or higher in the four major tournaments just twice previously in his 17-year pro career, an 80 in the 1962 British Open and an 81 in the 1970 U.S. Open. He was well above the pace on the par-71 Oakmont monster.

Then Nicklaus gathered himself and saved par the next three holes. And when his tee shot at the par-3 16th hole landed just off the putting surface, a glimmer of hope appeared. It was called rain, suspending play for 65 minutes and giving him a chance thr first round would be wiped out.

But one of Nicklaus's innumerable commercials insists the sun will shine daily on him. Yesterday he was sorry it did, or at least that the clouds held the rain longer than the greens held his shots. When play resumed, Nicklaus assumed the water-logged 16th green would allow him to hit the 40-foot putt more firm.

He was wrong - again - and eight over par. Naturally, his ball came to rest in another sand-filled divot on the 17th fairway, but he escaped with a par. So he was at 75, with the 456-yard par-4 No. 18 awaiting. And he did what ordinary humans tend to do when needing a par on the last hole to break 80 - pulled a shot drastically to the left.

But again it was so bad it was good. He needed a mid-iron to reach the green - and the evergreens that blocked his view of the hole were shot enough to be no problem for a well-struck shot. He hit a well-struck shot, then mumbled to himself, "Hit a green, eh? How about that."

Nicklaus avoided 80, but figured to have to shoot 69 or better in the second round to escape the cut in a major tournament for just the fourth time in his professional life.

"Rain," he said during a most gracious press conference. "Will it please rain real hard."

Yes, it would. But not before too many players had hit too many shots to have the entire round canceled. At a few minutes before 6 p.m., Nicklaus knew the 79 would stand.

"Maybe I'll go to the practice range," he said, smiling, "if I think I need it."