Eleven days ago at the Inverrary golf tournament, Jack Nicklaus awoke before dawn. By first light, he hit warmup balls. At 8 a.m. that Saturday, he approached the first tee and saw before him a dewy, untouched fairway.

This is the PGA world the way the sufferers see it. The golfers with the tournament's worst score tee off first. Leaders go last.

That morning, a dozen of Nicklaus' fellow pros were waiting for him at the first tee -- smirking. A red ribbon was stretched across the fairway. As he stepped up, Nicklaus was handed a pair of ceremonial scissors.

No one could remember the last time Sir Jack had been the ignominious "dew sweeper" -- the first player on the course. Nicklaus smiled between gritted teeth and snipped.

But last Saturday at the Doral Open, Nicklaus was not smiling. For the second tournament in a row, he had shot the worst two-round score among those who made the cut. Once more, he had set the alarm for 6 a.m. to be the first player on the course. No ribbon and scissors awaited him. Only silence and considerable elbow room. Everyone knows that the Golden Bear likes to sleep.

On the 18th hole that day, Nicklaus plunked his approach in the Blue Monster lake and took double bogey for 75. Next day, same thing -- "splash" at 18 -- and a final Doral total of 294, 15 shots behind the leader.

Nicklaus smashed his offending seven-iron into the ground, flipped the club at his caddy and stalked off the course. For the 10th consecutive round, Jack Nicklaus had failed to break par.

For the worst of pros, that's a slump. For Nicklaus, it's a disaster.

When he tees it up Thursday in the Tournament Players Championship over the vicious, windy Sawgrass course, who will golfdom be watching -- the TPC's defending champion or a champion suddenly grown defensive?

Once more the rumors and mutterings are beginning that Nicklaus, now 39, is beginning to show his years. At Doral, theories were cheaper than range balls -- the putting yips, lost desire and concentration, a restricted swing due to age and recurring back spasms.

"My reaction to Jack's slump is like everybody else's -- pretty much disbelief," said pro Bill (Buck) Rogers. "But, ya know, soon as ya say 'slump for Jack,' bang, he wins three in a row."

As usual, Nicklaus' worst enemy is his own marvelous past performances. Others play against the golf course or the rest of the field. Nicklaus has a tougher opponent: his own ghost.

Last year at this moment, Nicklaus was in the midst of the most flamboyant Florida rampage of his career.

At Inverrary, the Bear birdied the last five holes -- including two chipins -- to win by a shot. At Doral, he closed with another 65 -- including eagles on wedge shots of 56 and 57 yards -- to grab second place.

When Nicklaus won his third TPC in the five years of the event the following week, he had finished second, first, second, first in four straight events. That's a tough act to follow.

"I'll be the last one to fool myself about my own game," said Nicklaus. "That's what's confusing now. I think I'm hitting the ball solidly and, believe it or not, I'm even rolling the ball (putting) solidly. I just can't get anything to go into the hole."

When bad feels like good, that can mean two things. Either good is just around the corner, or there aren't any more corners.

"At Inverrary, I knew I was playing awful and I said so. I went to Jack Grout, my old teacher, and he helped me with some problems... alignment and extension," said Nicklaus.

Let's see, what does that translate into in English? Alignment is the key to accuracy and extension is the cornerstone of power. So Nicklaus' problems were with distance and accuracy, the two fundamentals of the game.

Every day at Doral, Nicklaus said, "I played well today, but one or two bad breaks kept me from having a decent round."

By week's end, the pattern was clear. "It was something different every day," said Nicklaus. "But that's the entire point...

"I'm thinking, 'How in the world do I get down to 70?' instead of trying to figure out how to shoot 66.

"Last year, everyone said I was on top of my game, but really I was having some miraculous shots go into the hole.

"I've gotta have some good scores before Augusta. I need them for my confidence."

Golf confidence is inexplicable. The same Saturday that Nicklaus grimly swept the Doral dew, Kermit Zarley stepped to the same first tee laughing so hard that "I hardly knew where I was.

"Larry Ziegler had been teasing one of the born-again players on the practice tee, saying, 'Hallelujah, the Lord has given us a little 40-mile-an-hour wind this morning. Praise the Lord!'" exclaimed Zarley, who went out and shot a course-record 29 on the front nine.

"I didn't even know I had five birdies in a row," said the tickled Zarley. "I was just watching 'em go in the hole."

At the moment Zarley was posting his 29, Nicklaus was pontificating, "There will be a lot of high scores today. My 75 wasn't that bad."

When Nicklaus heard about the 29, he fell back on his bench like a little boy caught in a funny fib. He put his hands over his eyes and his feet in the air, laughing almost as hard as Zarley had.

"Twenty-nine," giggled Nicklaus in disbelief, forgetting that just a year ago he finished both Inverrary and Doral with 30 on the final nine.

The Tournament Players Championship, which begins Thursday, has the deepest and best field of any golf tournament in the world. It is the richest event in the world with a $440,000 purse, $72,000 going to the winner. And it is played on one of the most difficult tournament courses in the world -- Sawgrass.

What the TPC doesn't have is tradition, national publicity and a sensible name.

"The TPC is the most significant event on the PGA tour, ranking just after the big four major tournaments," said Jack Nicklaus.

The TPC has the 144 best golfers in the world over the previous 365 days -- based on performance, not reputation.

Basically, the field consists of the top 144 money winners since the previous TPC. Goodbye, Sam Snead. Hello, Mark McCumber.

No quality PGA player is allowed to skip the TPC without the kind of excuse that a sixth-grader needs to miss final exams. John Mahaffey, with a hand injury, and Jerry McGee (ribs) have been excused.

Windy, watery Sawgrass is a killer. For the last two seasons, no other event has approached its winning score of 289.