Surely, there never has been a round in all the 80 U.S. Opens like today, when par for the day was so far under par, when golf's best player at the moment made a hole in one and when golf's best player ever felt both majestic and foolish.

Morning and afternoon, what rolled over lush and historic Baltusrol were gasps of astonishment that the course named after a murdered farmer could be shot into submission by even mediocre players. Like so many memorable moments, Tom Watson's began with a rather ordinary observation.

"Eight today, isn't it?" he said to his caddy on the fourth tee, one of the liveliest par 3s in golf but a liar on the scoreboard today. Instead of the advertised 162 yards, it was playing 150 -- and when Watson stroked that eight-iron he knew something nice was about to happen.

When the ball was a few inches from landing, Watson knew something wonderful would hapen. When the ball hit the green -- four inches to the right of the cup -- bounced forward and quickly back, as though a pool shark had struck it instead of a golfer, the crowd let Watson know something cosmic had happened.

"You win a car and two hubcaps," his playing partner, David Graham, joked. And while jubilant, Watson also was thankful the shot and kept his own wheels from falling completely off so close to the start of a race he wants to win so badly.

"My first thought -- honest -- was: 'I'm one under instead of one over,'" he said. "You never forget something like that, of course." This was the seventh ace in his life. "But I all but had it out of my mind two or three holes later."

And five or six hours after that, most of the Open crowd had let Watson's name slip out of its collective mind. If this had been take-your-pick-of-scores day, Watson might have been in contention, for the major leaderboards had him one under for the round instead of one over.

Nearly any other year, a 71 would have been a score to be proud of. And that leaderboard fiction would have put him well in contention, perhaps among the leaders. But two dozen golfers shot par or better today -- and when Jack Nicklaus began striding up to the 13th fairway late in the afternoon, even Watson's one began to dwindle in significance.

It had been a fine front nine for legends. Arnold Palmer was two under at the turn, only to fade into bogey-double bogey-bogey misery. So when Nicklaus was four-under and standing in the middle of the 13th fairway with a seven-iron in hand, tens of thousands sensed one of sport's special performances was possible.

Up ahead, Tom Weiskopf was a birdie machine, going from four under to five under to six under. And when Nicklaus spun that seven-iron shot to within a foot of the cup -- and tapped in the birdie putt -- veteran caddy Angie Argea got engulfed in the drama.

He looked at the leaderboard, at each Weiskopf birdie, and said: "Answer it." And Nicklaus did.

"Sometimes if you play off another fellow -- even if he's several holes ahead of you -- you're not so nervous about your game," he said. "You know what I'm driving at."

Certainly, though at a different level. How many of us have had a career round going through 13 holes, only to all of a sudden realize it, to actually begin to believe that -- at last -- this is not such a difficult game after all? Which is the beginning of the end.

Nicklaus could bore toward Weiskopf instead of reflect on his own good fortune during those final holes -- and no one, himself included, had seen anything comparable in years. It ended as his best score ever in a major tournament -- and he was frustrated that it was not better.

Nicklaus birdied No. 11 with a 20-foot putt. He birdied No. 12 with a 13-foot putt. He birdied No. 13 with that one-foot tap and saved par at No. 14, with a four-footer after a fine trap shot. And as he strode onto the 15th tee a fan thundered: "Golden Bear's back. I can feel it in my bones."

The smile from Nicklaus suggested he might have been thinking: "Back? How far do you think I've been? I was fourth in the Masters last year, second in the British Open and ninth at the U.S. Open. What does it take to please you?"

He knew the answer all too clearly, for he also had been 71st on a money list he once dominated and had won only one of the majors he so covets in five years. Nicklaus turned 40 in January -- and played well enough to dismiss some of the doubts about major-tournament mortality but putted horribly enough not to eliminate many of them.

Today, the putts fell. The 12-footer at No. 1 saved par and very likely made the 63 possible. As he said later: "If I missed that -- and also made bogey on No. 2 -- you might not have heard from me today."

And when he was standing on the 15th tee the minds of anyone over 25 were working overtime. Baltusrol and Nicklaus. Thirteen years ago he set the four-round Open record of 275 with a course-record 65 the final day. He shot 62 during a practice round that year.

Nicklaus was Fat Jack then, puffy but at the peak of his skills, almost ugly in every way except when striking a golf ball. Slim and tanned and dressed in all the proper shades, though color blindness keeps him from recognizing almost all of them, Nicklaus now affects a regal look. Today he also played like a king.

From the 11th though the 17th holes, Nicklaus went birdie, birdie, birdie, par, birdie, par, birdie. He crunched his tee shot on 15 so hard only an eight-iron was necessary to lift the ball to within eight feet of the 430-yard hole. Naturally, the result was a bird. And the par on 16 could have been still another bird had the ball taken a half-turn to the right as it crept past the hole.

In the 18th fairway, Nicklaus fussed longer than usual over his club selection. When he finally pulled out a three-wood, a cheer erupted. There would be no layup this time. There were more than 230 yards to a well-trapped, thickly-roughed green, but he was going for it.

"I thought I knocked it on," he said later. "I was surprised I hit it short."

It was in the rough about 15 yards from the pin. The lie was fine on first inspection. And on second glance, too. But then something made the ball move, perhaps an inch, and into a bit of a hole. Still, the shot was not especially difficult.

Nicklaus struck it to what he said was three feet of the cup. Other eyes thought it closer to two feet. Probably within the inside-the-leather distance hackers do not bother finishing off. One more tap from his suddenly magical wand and the single-round Open record was his. There was a $50,000 prize for breaking the record -- but Nicklaus cherished glory more than money now.

Let him explain how in an instant he turned from heavenly to horrid:

"There were two shadows crossing," he said. "Mine and maybe a tree. Anyway, I was putting half in the shadow and half out -- and you know how that is with the putter going in and out of the sun. But it didn't bother me. I was so confident.

"I hadn't missed all day. And I was afraid to nail it."

There was a reason.

"A sharp break at the left edge (of the hole)," he said. "It could have spun by if I'd hit it too hard and gone six or seven feet. "I said to myself: 'Yes, you can shoot 62, but you also can shoot 64 by trying to hit it. I sorta chickened out on 62."

Still, he was aglow.

"The way I've been playing lately (including a 78 that caused him to miss the cut last week in Atlanta)," he said. "I can't tell you how I feel. mAll of this is new stuff. I played a lot of shots I've never seen before.I've never played right to left in an Open. That's not my normal game. But I'm getting 25 more yards."

And the putting?

Nicklaus began a textbook-sounding lecture about "squaring up" and how left to right putts once had been impossible. He added: "I hit some really good left-to-right putts today -- except one."