Maybe nobody in sports handles the bad times the way Jack Nicklaus does. That's probably why he has so many good times. Today was one of the worst.

Nicklaus teed off in the British Open knowing that, the day before, his 18-year-old son Steve had been charged with drunk driving after flipping and wrecking the Nicklaus family station wagon while driving on Jack Nicklaus Freeway in Columbus, Ohio.

Maybe you don't think that bothers Jack Nicklaus. Maybe you don't think his five children mean more to him than his 19 major golf championships. And maybe you think it was just a coincidence that today he shot the worst golf score of his 20 years as a pro: an 83.

As Nicklaus walked off the 18th at Royal St. George's, the Royal and Ancient press officer asked if he would answer a few questions for the media. "No," snapped the normally affable Nicklaus. "Ask me about today tomorrow. I don't wanna talk about it 'cause I'll probably say something I'll be sorry for."

And Nicklaus shouldered his way into the crowd just like all the other bores in sport who eat up the fame, but can't face the blame. That's when the autograph hounds attacked him, notebooks and papers actually smacking him in the face as he walked to the clubhouse. Instead of being angry, he was thinking. He walked more and more slowly. He signed eveything.

Nicklaus' jaw was still clenched, but he started talking, a phrase at a time. "Need another pen, don'tcha?" he asked a kid with a dead pen, making the child's day.

The boy shoved a new jacket into Nicklaus' hands. "Jacket, huh?" said Nicklaus. "You really wanna ruin this with my name, huh? A year ago, I'd have been happy to sign this. Now, I probably can't even sign my name right."

Finally, Nicklaus got to the clubhouse door, his head still down. What he don't know was that nearly every person for whom he had signed over the hundred-yard walk had continued to follow him, all of them nonplussed at his poise and generosity. As he opened the door to the clubhouse, every scrap of paper signed, the crowd broke into a spontaneous ovation. "You're the greatest," said a middle-aged man. "The rest of 'em don't even know what it's about."

Inside the door, Nicklaus realized he was faced with hounds more aggressive than any autograph seekers: new hounds. "you guys are persistent," he said, almost genially to the half-dozen who hadn't taken several "nos" for an answer. a

As Nicklaus walked toward the locker room he looked over his shoulder at his entourage of pests and said, with a sudden snicker, "Oh, come on." Jack Nicklaus, you see, always talks. About everything.

Nicklaus sardonically went through his round -- shot by shot -- just as though it had been the 63 he shot in the U.S. Open last year, not the 83 at the British Open today. Even so, Nicklaus knew the question that wasn't being asked but would be.

Nicklaus could have ducked the issue of having a son charged with drunk driving on the road that his hometown named for him. It's tough enough being famous, or being the son of someone famous, without having your family life lived in public.

But Nicklaus doesn't think that way. He thinks you just face things and take your chances.

"No, Steve's accident had nothing to do with today," said Nicklaus. (You thought maybe he'd blame his own child for shooting a bad score?) "He'd just fell asleep (at the wheel)" said Nicklaus, his face breaking into a little smile as he added, "He had a couple of beers and then fell asleep.

"Yes, I talked to him last night. . . . He just has a scratch on his leg.

He was lucky no one was with him and he didn't hit anybody else. The car was totaled but he's fine."

Nicklaus paused. He didn't want to take it too lightly. Those who know Nicklaus best say that nothing makes him blow his composure and get upset like the scrapes his active and sometimes mischievous children get into.

"I don't really get enthusiastic about something like this happening," said Nicklaus, twisting the words so it was clear that father had been extremely unhappy and had said so. "But Steve's no different than any other college kid. He took his date home. He was tired. And he fell asleep . . . Yeah, on my road."

Nicklaus let out a little snort of chagrined laughter at that. You can't get around him. You can't make him strike a false note. The man just doesn't have it in him to be a fraud. When Steve Nicklaus goes to Florida State as a freshman this fall on a full football scholarship as a flanker, there won't be a prouder father in the stands than Jack Nicklaus.

"(FSU Coach) Bobby Bowden's a good man. That's one reason I'm glad he's going there," said Nicklaus. Nicklaus sat back and stretched, scratching the sand trap sand from his hair. "I don't know what's wrong with me," he said. "Nothing more than has been wrong all year. Yeah, I've still got that diarrhea (now in its fifth month). But that's nothing that should affect my game. . . . Today, I shouldn't even have turned in a card. It would have helped my stroke average . . . That about it, guys?" asked Nicklaus. "I didn't mean to avoid you. Sometimes I need three or four minutes to get hold of myself."

It's true that Nicklaus is so intelligent that he is capable of considerable calculation. He can manage the media as he must manage many people in his life. But it is also true that he is one of those men who carries with him an inalienable sense of due north on his personal compass. For Nicklaus, it only takes a quick three- or four-minute check to get himself aligned.

Nicklaus walked to his car and prepared to drive away. Before he left, however, one more person needed to be cheered up. Nicklaus slapped his caddie on the back. "Okay, pal," he said to the old Scotsman, "see you tomorrow."