Inspiration today comes from the late Jimmy Cannon, who took a backward look at the sporting '60s and saw them dominated by Muhammad Ali. He surely would blanch at what seems an almost inescapable followup: that the athletic symbol of the '70s is a golfer.

"The athlete of the decade has to be Cassius Clay, who is now Muhammad Ali," Cannon wrote. "He is all that the Sixties were. It is as though he were created to represent them. In him is the troubled and the wildness and the hysterical gladness and the nonsense and the rebellion and the conflicts of race and the yearning for bizarre religions and the cult of the put-on and the changed values that altered the world and the feeling about Vietnam in the generation that ridicules what their parents cherish . . .

"The character he used as a contender for the heavyweight championship would have been all wrong in any other decade. He called himself the greatest and the prettiest and demeaned the guys he had to fight . . . It was logical he would be called the greatest champion in all the ages of boxing (because) this was a decade when the critics were afraid of things they couldn't understand and honored chaos in the arts."

In his breathless fashion, Cannon was exactly right. But what of the '70s? This certainly will be known as the money decade, when athletes finally said: "I want mine" - and got it. The superior players became corporations, the pro football backfield of the decade having O.J. Simpson, Inc., taking a handoff from a holding company called Fran Tarkenton.

Mostly because of owner greed, 30 NBA players reportedly earn more than $250,000 per year. Most NFL players earn in one week what it cost to buy most teams two generations ago. The average major-league baseball salary last year was more than $76,000.

The '70s have seen two strikes each by pro baseball and football players. NBA officials and baseball unpires have walked off the job, briefly, to fatten their wallets. And unless Simpson or Bjorn Borg comes on more swiftly than anyone imagines in the next 16 months the embodiment of the decade is:

Jack Nicklaus.

Others, Richard Petty, A. J. Foyt, Rod Carew, Simpson, Tarkenton and Kareem Abdul Jabbar among them, have bestraddled their sports as mightily. But for marimizing athletic profit from athletic skills - which is the name of the game this decade - nobody does it better than Nicklaus.

As a fat phenom, Nicklaus grabbed Arnold Palmer's golfing crown as early as the mid-'60s. Then he retooled his image, to the point that he even looks regal against the luch backdrop of an exquisite course.

So far, he has won eight major titles in the '70s and won the toughest test of them all, the Tournament Players Championship, three of the five years it has been held.

For eight straight years, he has won more money than the entire PGA tour offered 40 years ago. And beaten back challenges from excellent players he and Palmer helped draw into the business.

Off the course, we can scarcely escape him. He pitches cars and clothes, lawn mowers, airlines and entire golf courses. He smacks wedges from enormous dirt movers. Dash to the kitchen and you bump into his wife's picture on an oven ad.

Do you know me?Nicklaus asks during that credit-card TV commercial. Of course, you're the guy who just bought Idaho.

Cannon never would have chosen Nicklaus, for the simple reason that he would never have allowed him in the contest in the first place.One of his canons - supported by a flock of others - was that golfers might be people but they sure as Willie Mays are not athletes.

"How can it be?" he argues in the collection of columns published by his brothers, "when most of the guys who work at it are shaped like me? It is the pastime of the flabby and the obese. You don't even have to be hard-boiled and athletic to be the Open champion.

"It is a pleasant way for the middle-aged to kill a nice afternoon. But so is pitching horseshear, also a game for the elderly."

Nicklaus is at least as athletic as the leading scorers in the NFL the placekickers. His own team, the Red Sox, would rather not have the most valuable player in the American League this season, Jim Rice, play the outfield.

Golf's is the one game that eliminates alibis. If a man uses his equipment - and his mind - properly, he will be rewarded. And early Superstars clearly showed that an "athlete" is in the eye of the beholder. Hockey players couldn't hit a baseball; Joe Frazier nearly drowned.

The pre-'70s Nicklaus helped shape Cannon's distaste for golf. The late-'70s Nicklaus might well have forced Cannon to change his mind, for he began to generate income in geometric leaps when he stopped looking like a dollar sign.