There's nothing wrong with the pro golf tour that Jack Nicklaus couldn't solve in a hurry.
Golf is reasonably healthy everywhere except at its most important point: the very top. Nicklaus vows, in a manner and tone of voice that he has never used before, that immediate help is on the way.
And he gave credence to his claim today when he shot a 71 to move into a three-way tie for the Doral Open lead with Bruce Lietzke and Keith Fergus, all at 210.
Here at the Doral Open, grumblings that have mounted like an ugly thunderstorm the past two years still continue -- mutterings that coincided exactly with The Nicklaus Slump.
"Pro golf is dull," charged old Tommy Bolt. "It's a chorus line of blond towheads you can't even tell apart."
"Deane Beman isn't qualified to be commissioner of golf," groused Tom Weiskopf, the other Terrible Tom. "I don't know how he keeps his job. The players don't respect Beman, the sponsors don't like him, and the media don't trust him."
Amid the PGA's latest firestorm of flack about the drab stars, poor TV ratings and general creeping malaise, Nicklaus has unequivocally announced an imminent comeback.
"I'm sick of playing lousy. I've just been going through the motions for two years," says Nicklaus, 71st on the money list in '79 and currently stuck at 71st again in '80.
"First, it irritates you, then it really bothers you, until finally you get to damn blasted mad at yourself that you decide to do something about it.
"I've decided to do something. And I will. Or I'll quit."
Nicklaus has changed his swing, changed his attitude, even changed his practice habits. Who knows to what avail?
For years, the Golden Bear has dealt out his enthusiasm in small dollops as though it were honey -- playing a minuscule schedule that was tantamount to a 40-week-a-year vacation so that he could avoid the career-shortening nemesis of staleness.
The result: he got stale.
Now, Nicklaus has taken out the whole honey pot. All the enthusiasm hoarded for so long is being poured out at once in what he obviously feels is Jack's Last Stand -- or, perhaps, the first of several last stands.
"I'm fresh. I'm excited. I want to win. I feel like I did when I was a kid," he said exuberantly Friday after ripping off a 31 on the final nine for a 67 that put him in contention.
"I realized last month that I haven't been working hard enough at trying to make fundamental improvement.I was just tinkering."
After working with veteran pro Phil Rodgers. Nicklaus has come up with an altered grip, a flatter swing plane, and a long-carrying flight pattern that gives him almost Fat Jack distance.
Whether it makes an iota of difference is moot. But it's got Nicklaus excited, which, he is convinced, is half the battle.
"I'm on the verge of getting there and I'm going to get there," says Nicklaus, who, perhaps sadly or perhaps wisely, has taken to giving himself public pep talks.
"When I left Inverrary last Sunday, I flew home, went out and played nine more holes. After the Los Angeles Open, I went out and practiced for five hours.
"I've never done that before. I mean never, not even as a rookie."
Is golf's greatest champion whistling in the dark? Is this simply the first symptom of golf's ultimate wearing down of the skills of every player who has every swung a club?
"These are interesting times," says Nicklaus. "The game is most fun when you are experimenting. One day you're great, the next day scatterload. But you're learning.
"No, that's not right. I probably have forgotten more about golf than I will ever learn. What you do is remember some of the things you thought you'd never forget.
"I've gone through fits. But it' longer . . . making better quality contact. I'd been striking down on the ball, rather than through it."
Nicklaus, of course, knows the pitfall which the British call "baffling oneself with science" and which Americans call "paralysis through analysis."
"I hope I can start to play golf soon and stop making changes. I'm getting tired of it. It's time to stop thinking, stop talking and start playing."
The PGA concensus is that everybody wants Nicklaus back in form -- even his foes.
Nicklaus played the sort of mentally tough, confidence-building round today that has eluded him for over 1 1/2 years. His score was the day's fourth best.
"Four years, I never felt that I needed a short game," he said.
"Finally, I just decided to do something about my short game. I'm not as long as I used to be. I need to get up and down from tough spots on the par 5s for my birdies. So I went to Phil. He's the best.
"For the last couple of weeks, Phil has been staying at my house and we've been practicing in the evenings. He's taught me a lot of shots around the greens."
Today, in fact, Nicklaus unveiled a new Rodgers trick shot -- an open-faced wedge explosion from six-inch deep grass in the fringe. "Been practicing it, might as well use it," said Nicklaus.
It went in for a birdie.
"I accomplished what I set out to do today," said Nicklaus. "Get in position to win."
As Leonard Thompson, second-round coleader here, walked off the 18th hold of the Blue Monster, he saw a line of five red Nicklaus birdies on the leader board. "I think I hear the Bear growling out there," he said with delight.
"Jack's been my idol since I was 5," said coleader Lietzke. "He's blowing his own horn these days and letting us know he's here. He's worked hard. We've seen more of him. It's been interesting just to watch.
"This may not be Jack's last stand, but we've been warned."
Obviously, a Nicklaus resurgence -- and it is hard to believe that so great a career could end without at least one -- cannot come a day too soon to suit the PGA.
The eruptions here of the Terrible Toms have been both fascinating and routine. The PGA is a sitting duck and anybody with an opinion is carrying a shotgun.
"Tom Watson's a great golfer, but that's all," cranked Bolt. Larry Nelson, a nice guy but so absolutely colorless you'd think he'd at least wear some bright clothes. Lon Hinkle, forget it. Ben Crenshaw's Texas drawl is his charisma. Bill Rogers, nothing Hale Irwin ought to be a banker.
"Most of these guys don't even drink," said Bolt. "Only bullfighting and the waterhold are left as vestigial evidence of what bloody savages men used to be."
Thunder Bolt had a few nice things to say, too, in a backhanded way. Weiskoph, by contrast, capped a feud that goes back years, with a broadside at Beman that's pure venom.
"No one has anything positive to say about Beman . . . the guy just isn't very intelligent . . . he was a second-rate golfer and didn't graduate from college," said Weiskopf, who has frequently been disciplined by Beman for temper outbursts, phony withdrawal injuries, and walking off the course during the middle of a round.
"Beman does little more than run a babysitter service. He stifles individuality with his strict dress and conduct codes," said Weiskopf, whom Beman forbade to wear a beard last season.
Ironically, such outbursts are exactly the sort of intense feeling and candor that the golf tour seldom seems to generate.
In most sports, athletes have managers, general managers and owners all primed to discipline them for the slightest excursion into honesty.
Golfers, by contrast, are autonomous, one-man corporations. They don't have to answer to anybody except the golf ball. What other pro sports offers such possibilities for individuality? And what other athletes muzle themselves voluntarily?
Their problem is not that they are spiritless, meakly obedient sons or country-club clones. Rather, golf has ingrained in them a fierce restraint, a low-flame moderation, a constant acceptance of failure that is almost a religious vow. Golf is the humbling game and none know it better than the best.
What is best, yet least appealing, about the PGA tour was on display here this week when three old Texas buddies -- Crenshaw, Thompson and Lietzke -- came off the course jubilantly after shooting a trio of 68's that would have, hypothetically, given them a best-ball of 59.
"I wish I could have a pairing like this every week," said Lietzke. "We're old friends who are compatible. You start making birdies and it's contagious.
"We talked about Leonard's little boy and old Texas golfers like Billy Maxwell and Billy Joe Patton. Nobody had to watch what they said or worry about the other guy's feelings. That frame of mind and all the encouragement helps you fight that mean golf course.
"Just call us the Birdie Brigade -- Lenny, Brucey and Benny," finished Lietzke.
Thompson cringed with embarrassment at what, by some unspoken standard, was too open a show of comradeship. "Why, not Huey, Dewey and Louie?" he needled Lietzke.
"It's ironic, but golf encourages this sort of atmosphere of everybody pulling for each other," Crenshaw said. "We're all going to try for the rest of our lives to beat the game and we're never going to."
"We all have our hot streaks and we all have our pitfalls. You have to pull for each other out here and most guys do."
At one level, that speaks well both for the game and its players. But, as Thompson said, "that's not exactly the relationship you find between Mean Joe Green and Bob Griese."
Or, for that matter, between Nicklaus and that world of ordinary golfers whom he has never had the slightest compunction about grinding into dust.
Crenshaw, Lietzke and Thompson -- who ranked fifth, eighth, and 41st on the money list last year -- symbolize the new breed of well-bred, talented, self-deprecating golfers who dominate the tour.
They'd make great friends. But are they the stuff of heroes?
Nobody is Nicklaus' protege, or his buddy.
"I couldn't care less who I'm paired with," he said after hearing about the Birdie Brigade. "There's nobody that I've ever played better or worse with, thank goodness. You don't want any factor to be outside your control.
"What if Arnie's Armmy had bothered me? What if I'd said, 'Oh, Jeez, I'm paired with Palmer." I'd never have beaten him.
"I can't say I've ever had favorite pairings; though, on the other hand, there are guys that maybe you don't like and you tell yourself 'I'm not going to let that guy beat me."
Is the difference between champion and contender clear enough?
The great mass of pros hope to catch a hot streak, or a favorite course, or a trick-swing thought. They'd just as soon be lucky as great. They need a shoulder to cry on. Golf is a nasty game and they forgive themselves when it wins.
Nicklaus allows the game no quarter and gives it no more respect or awe than it deserves.
"When you lip-out several putts in a row, you should never think that means that you're putting well and that 'your share' are about to start falling," Nicklaus said.
"The difference between 'in' and 'almost' is all in here," he said, tapping his head. "If you think the game is just a matter of getting it close and letting the law of averages do your work for you, you'll find a different way to miss every time.
"Your frame of reference must be exactly the width of the cup, not the general vicinity. When you're putting well the only question is what part of the hole its going to fall in, not if it's going in."
It's hard to think that this man -- trim and youthful at 40 -- cannot summon himself to the task at least once more.
As for the entire state of his game -- the one which is supposed to be in such deep water -- Nicklaus puts the matter in perspective with trenchant common sense.
"Golf is just as dull as it ever was," said Nicklaus, "or just as exciting, depending on your feeling for the game.
"Too much is being made of the small fluctuations in TV ratings or whatever.
"Golf is a nice game, but that's it. It's never been an exciting game to watch on TV. It's not a circus and never will be one.
"The audience for golf is not going to change significantly. It's always going to be the people who play it, and understand it, and love it.
"You have to have personalities to make the public at large more cognizant of the game, especially now when the public is spoiled. You have all kinds of sports on TV so much that you get tired of them. Your appetite for any game can get worn out.
"People talk about Tom Watson not having any personality, but he's one hell of a golfer. He's beating all our brains out. If it matters, he's also a nice guy.
"The only place where we got killed last year in rating was in the tournaments which had been on ABC before but went to NBC and CBS.
"It hurt when ABC lost us . . . or we lost ABC, whichever it was," said Nicklaus, alluding to a ticklish area since Beman pushed ABC out of the market by putting the price of TV golf so high, that a miffed ABC wouldn't pay.
"Now, we have to go up against ABC's Wide World of Sports" and no event has ever been able to compete with that show.
"As for having more stars with personalities, yes, it's important, but it's not critical."
For all these industry-wide problems, Nicklaus has the simplest sort of cure -- move your right hand more on top of the club. That is, if the hand in question happens to belong to Nicklaus.
At the grimly technical level, Nicklaus thinks that, over a period of years, his right-hand position became too "strong."
"It was a good idea when I started doing it," he says. "But what is good in small doses is bad when it gets big. It's just a bad habit that crept up on me."
To compensate for the hook grip, Nicklaus began looping the club a bit at the top -- using one error to correct another: absolutely the most common unconscious problem in golf.
Under Rodgers' recent guidance, Nicklaus feels that both power and an ability to "work" the ball in either direction have started to return with more consistency.
"Every cure is temporary," said the man who, last year, went without a victory for the first time since joining the tour in '62."But it's nice while it lasts."
Above all Nicklaus' qualities, the most appealing, perhaps, is one that camera never catches. In his personal contact with everybody, from highest to lowest, he is always there -- living calmly and intently in the moment.
Other stars of other sports seem distracted or self-important or preoccupied. Nicklaus goes slowly, looks everyone quietly in the eye, is fascinated by sizing people up and really talking with them. He has, in reality, the common touch that Palmer projected to a camera.
A friend, talking with Nicklaus today, said, "Gee, Jack, it's good to see Johnny Miller win again. Just like when Gary Player won the Masters at (age) 43 or Trevino go back and fourth on the money list last year after being hit by lightning."
Nicklaus looked the fellow in the eye, a trace of merriment lurking in his face, then grabbed the man by both shoulders.
"Yes, it's almost as nice," said Nicklaus, giving the thick-witted fellow a firm shake, "as this year when Nicklaus made his great comeback."