Perhaps more than any other contemporary American sports star, Jack Nicklaus makes a point of trying to knit his athletic life, his public life and his private life into one workable and interlocking fabric.

He believes that the health of his play has its roots in the health and balance of his whole life -- an unprovable, and perhaps even dubious premise -- but one with which it is difficult not to wish him good fortune.

For instance, Nicklaus prepared for today's final round of the U.S. Open -- one of the most strain-filled days of his professional life -- by "doing exactly what I'd do any other day. I forgot about golf completely, went home and," he kidded, "beat my wife."

If Nicklaus had an edge, it is his notion of preparation and management -- both of his game and of himself and his state of mind.

In the short run, Nicklaus' last-minute prepping for an Open Sunday seems consonant with his love of order, a comfortable sort of discipline and a hidden humor that gives his achievements a comfortable charm, rather than a plastic, aloof hardness.

"I finished practicing Saturday night at about 8:30 and hustled home because I wanted to see 'Dr. No' on TV," said Nicklaus, not specifying whether he wanted to see James Bond win or merely thought it would be psychologically useful on the eve of battling Isao Aoki to see an Oriental villain trounced.

"Barbara fixed me the same meal -- veal -- that I had the night before I shot the 63," Nicklaus related. "She figured it couldn't hurt. Then we watched the (thriller) 'Eyes of Laura Mars' on HBO, and went to bed at midnight.

"This morning, I watched six or seven Tom and Jerry cartoons on TV with Michael (6 years old), who is our youngest child, and our last . . . I think. Then I played catch with Michael for a while, and after that I read a book I'm working on for an hour. Then it was time for golf."

The Nicklaus mood toward golf is visibly different from that of the younger, more excitable Tom Watson. Before their rounds today, Nicklaus just two shots ahead, and Watson, held court in the locker room, 20 feet apart, with a dozen reporters apiece. Watson was fidgety and couldn't sit still. Nicklaus, perhaps role-playing a bit, yawned a couple of times and teased his questioners, saying, "You can't possibly find this (interviewing him) interesting. Admit it. The air-conditioning is just better in here."

On the course, Barbara Nicklaus was always 100 yards away from the point of action, talking with friends and barely noticing what her husband was up to. Linda Watson was walking through the underbrush to get as close to Tom as possible, asking people what the lastest report was from the front on Watson's lie in the rough.

Much, perhaps all, of this difference may show the gap between a man at 40 with 18 major championships and a man at 30 with three.

In the longer-range matter of preparing his game, Nicklaus has made major changes this year which will affect the rest of his career.

"A large part of this game is desire," Nicklaus stated after his victory. "For the last three or four years, I kidded myself that I was working hard on golf, but I wasn't. Last year was just the culmination.

"I decided that if I was going to keep on playing, then I really had to play. In the last six months, I've worded harder on my game than I ever have . . . or at least since I was a kid. People said I was through, and I had to admit that they might be right. In fact, they may still be right. But I wanted to find out. Partly, wanted to prove that they were wrong and that my opinion about my own game was right.

"Well, after all that work, nothing happened, "Since I don't speak English, I thought 78 in the first round and missed the cut, I wasn't very happy. I was doing a lot of thinking."

Now, for the moment, all those doubts, all those questions about whether he was conning himself, are submerged.