"I'm a much better player than I've ever been. I don't think there's any question about that . . . I have a short game now, which I never had before . . . Since last fall, I have been systematically working on my putting just like I worked on my short game two years ago . . . I never used to miss anything inside 10 feet. The last three or four years, I've been putting like other people. I've found out you can miss a putt. I didn't realize that people missed putts . . . The result is, I'm in pretty good shape with my putter right now."

Periodically, Jack Nicklaus lets his hair down and gives his fans an in-depth reading on the state of the Bear. At least as seen from the mouth of the Bear's cave.

Nicklaus is always the sports world's model of candor and common-sense self-knowledge. It's his trademark. But, occasionally, as was the case today on the eve of the Doral Open, Nicklaus puts himself on the rack and takes his psyche and game apart like a mechanic analyzing a great race car.

What Nicklaus, 42, had to say was that he truly thinks he's on the verge of the last prolonged binge of blow-'em-all-away golf of his career.

In the past two years, Nicklaus has been in the deepest experimental investigation, and overhauling, of his game since he was in his late teens. The discovery that he can dismantle and rebuild parts of his game from scratch has given him a kind of rebirth.

The putting stroke, always one of the twin pillars of his game (alongside his power) has been the latest New Nicklaus project. Now it will be revealed, just as the Short Game project presaged Nicklaus' dazzling victories in the U.S. Open and PGA in '80.

When did Nicklaus seriously work on his putting?

"I never did . . . I never worried about putting and as a result I probably got myself into a position where I didn't putt anywhere near my standard for about three years.

"I had an odd week here and there . . . a fantastic week at the ('80) PGA, a couple of good days at the Open. But my putting was like the rest of my game in that I got myself in trouble in the later part of the '70s because I did not work at my faults, did not try to improve. That's where I got myself in trouble. . . Now I find the trouble spots, work on them, try to correct them, work on all the aspects of the game. That keeps me fresh, that keeps me excited, that keeps me interested in wanting to play.

"If you feel flat, that's how you'll play. That's what I did for several years and that's what got me in a low . . . You go through those lax periods. You get a little lazy and you don't like to admit it . . . I remember three years ago going to Augusta (for the Masters) and saying, 'What in the world am I doing here today? Why am I here a week ahead of time? Why am I out to the golf course?' "

At that time, Nicklaus wouldn't admit such things to himself. Not until his game crumbled around him, as he fell to 71st in money winnings in '79, did he feel the depressing, yet exhilarating it's-all-gone-down-the drain freedom to throw everything up against the wall and start putting it back together from scratch.

"I've enjoyed the last two years . . . Heck, now my short game's perfect compared to what it used to be. Occasionally, I get it on the green now. I'm not as good as some of these guys out here. But at least I'm somewhere in the ballpark now. It's not killing me now every time I miss a green . . .

"Even though I didn't win in '81, I enjoyed it, because I worked at it and had fun with it . . . 1981 was a good year from the standpoint of playing golf. My scoring average was lower. My money winnings were higher. My position on the money list was higher. But I didn't win (a tournament) . . . I just didn't happen to have the two great weeks that made '80 a great year . . . "

As almost jubilant as Nicklaus seemed in the spring of '80--after Phil Rodgers taught him a short game--that's how enthusiastic Nicklaus seems now after a long winter of his own analysis on "little technical things in the putting stroke--agressiveness through the ball, the speed of my stroke, where the ball is struck . . .

"Oh, I'll miss my share of putts. I probably will never putt as well as I used to. I suppose even I get tired standing over the ball as long as I used to stand over it. I probably don't concentrate quite as well as I used to . . . But I'm trying to keep myself young, keep myself hungry, keep myself interested, by having fun at it."

And what about that putter?

"I putted very well today," he said, beaming. "I've enjoyed the start of this year. Basically, I've gone back to my schedule of playing golf first, then, when I'm done, the office will either see me or it won't see me. I kind of enjoy that. Of course, they don't like it so much . . . I'm gettin' some (golf) work done.

"There's no reason in the world I can't (still) play well . . . "

This week should provide an excellent test of whether Nicklaus is, as usual, reading himself accurately, or whether some self-deception has set in. Through the years, Nicklaus' play here has been a good indicator of what kind of year is ahead for him. The Blue Monster, for some reason, is a near-perfect barometer of the Golden Bear.

In addition, the rough is gloriously high here. "Far more difficult than I've seen the U.S. Open in a long time," pronounces Nicklaus. "Darn right I like it that way . . .

"I've gone through some ups and downs," said Nicklaus. "The next down I go through, if it's from not working, I'll say 'goodbye.' "