The worst it got for Jack Nicklaus today was on the 14th tee. He had gone plop, plop into Rae's Creek at 12 and 13 and now an airplane seemed to be trying to make him go fizz, fizz for the entire Masters by thundering low, seeminly in strafing position.

Murphy's Law and Tom Watson had conspired for a seismic turnaround that reached its limits just then. From a four-shot lead over Watson and three others at the start of the day, Nicklaus now trailed Watson by four shots. He might as well have been swinging a sledgehammer as a driver, so short and off line had he been for several holes.

Golfers almost always lose their touch before it becomes publicly obvious and regain it the same way. Before Nicklaus duffed that six-iron into the creek and took double bogey, he made one of the shots of his life across a pond at 11 to recover from a horrid drive.

His sins had multiplied, another awful drive at 13 costing him position and his third stroke to par in two holes. He was unraveling in a hurry. And although he had surrendered leads in the third round and gone on to win major tournaments before, nothing in all his years as a Masters contender had been quite like this. So suddenly cataclysmic.

And, as Nicklaus addressed the ball on the 14th tee, as he tried once more to click into some sort of concentration, as he was just about to cock his head, pull back that suddenly temperamental club and see what new adventure might take place, this huge plane swooped down over his head.

Perhaps the pilot had somehow gotten word that a Nicklausian collapse was taking place in the Masters and wanted to witness a bit of it for himself. Nicklaus, after all, had gone from some of the sweetest swings of his career in the first two rounds to some of the sourest in the third.

In cathedral-like silence, Nicklaus had sent two shots into the worst possible places at Augusta National. What might an airplane intruding on his backswing produce?

Relief. The realization of how absurd everything in the last 20 minutes or so had been, how the only thing he had done that was even up to the minimal standards necessary to win the Masters the last two holes had been to execute a drop. He had dropped a ball over his shoulder brilliantly after splashing a two-iron shot at 13, to almost the exact inch necessary to get a decent lie.

How goofy was that? Half the gallery could have hit the ball as well as he had the last two holes. And now a blessed airplane was trying to blow his mind.

Nicklaus caught himself just before he started to swing. He backed off the ball -- and he smiled. It was a silly sort of smile. And he shrugged his shoulders. Golf's master was mortal. And perhaps suddenly at peace with himself, convinced that not much more could go wrong.

He then ripped a drive that caused heads to snap in astonishment, the sort of monstrous liner that had been so common during the rounds in which he mustered so large a lead and which had all but disappeared today and caused him to lose it.

In the second round, when he admitted to being exceptionally long off every tee, Nicklaus had used a seven-iron to get pin high with his second shot at the 14th hole. Today, he used a nine-iron.

Recomposed, if not reinspired, Nicklaus built that one solid swing into two more on the par-five 15th hole, making birdie there and again at 16. That drive at 14 convinced him he could win the Masters again; the second shot at 15 convinced a gallery that had become nearly as fickle as his driver.

As Nicklaus was deciding which club to use to try and clear the pond with his second shot at 15, one of the fans who Masters sycophants insist are the most knowledgeable and polite in all of sport muttered off in the distance: "You might as well put that one in the water, too. You ain't missed none on the back side yet."

He stayed dry, although not totally high, the rest of the round. What he did on the 18th green -- after catching Watson -- and later during a press conference puzzled some long-in-the-tooth Nicklaus watchers. His chipping had been exceptional the second round, especially at 18. So in relatively the same position today, he putted from off the fringe, left the lag far enough away to miss, and missed.

Nicklaus was furious. And when that happens golf balls bleed. Instead of the usual press-conference ritual, Nicklaus practically sprinted to the practice tee. A long iron had embarrassed him, so he sent long iron after long iron whistling into the approaching darkness. Then he grabbed the dratted driver.

Four times, he belted practice balls. Four times they tore off on a laser-like line straight ahead, and beyond the entire range. Over the shrubs that are the outer boundary on the fly. Then he punished his wedge with extra work, his sand club and finally the glory club, the putter, the one that may well either win or lose the Masters for him.

In the press area later, Nicklaus created a mild fuss over the pairings for Sunday's final round. He wanted either to be with Watson or behind him, so he would know exactly what was necessary to win. He wanted no surprises like the one in '77, when Watson made birdie on the 17th hole to take the lead while he was in the 18th fairway. Unnerved, Nicklaus hit a bad approach and could not reply in kind.

"Absolutely I want to go man to man with him," Nicklaus said. "Of course, intimidation is the reason. One way or the other. I think he'd like to play me for the same reason."

They will not be together. Those splashes cost Nicklaus a chance to be last Sunday, and Masters tradition puts him in the next-to-last twosome (with John Mahaffey), just ahead of Watson (with Greg Norman). In nearly every other tournament, the final-round setup would pair Nicklaus with Watson. This one does not.

Nicklaus seemed both startled and oddly out of character with that development.

"When was that decided?" he said when he learned of the pairing. "Did they get that out of a box?"

He knows Masters lore better than almost anyone. One year he sat in the same seat after the third round and predicted, correctly, the final-day pin placements. Are Watson and his unknown rhythms troubling Nicklaus more than he cares to admit?

Anyone with the remotest interest in golf is glad neither man was a total master today, that they made just enough mental and physical bogeys for us to anticipate one more Masters shootout.