Not so long ago, Jack Nicklaus would have been unable to take the least sliver of pleasure from a one-stroke defeat in a major golf tournament.

His laser look and his red neck would have told the world that a near-miss in a major was his idea of a living Hades.

But not today.

Nicklaus is 43 and, all season, has played so poorly when it mattered that he had to wonder how much of the Bear was left.

After losing the PGA to Hal Sutton by one stroke, despite a brilliant final-round 66, Nicklaus had his moments of mild pique.

"Why in the world one shot?" he said at one point, recalling that he also finished one stroke out of a playoff at the Canadian Open last week, also because of a 73 on Thursday.

However, for the most part, Nicklaus seemed almost jubilant with the manner in which he called forth his old greatest twice this week--with 65 on Friday and that flawless 66 today.

"After the round yesterday, I said that if I can shoot 65, Hal would have to break par to beat me. It's difficult to break par to win your first (pro) major. I shot one more than I hoped to shoot. (But) I played well . . . very well, as a matter of fact.

"I don't think my abilities are going to be with me that much longer, but I've been thinking that for the last five or 10 years," laughed Nicklaus, who won the U.S. Open and PGA in '80 and had the Open snatched from him by a miracle shot in '82. "I still believe I'm playing very well, and I (now) think that my ability to play will last long beyond my desire to play, and my desire to make the sacrifices that it takes to play at this high a level.

"The older you get, the harder it is to stay up here. I play more golf now than I ever did. But that's necessary at my age.

"Having a chance to win is the fun of golf. That's what we all practice for," said Nicklaus. "Hal asked me, 'What do you think about all the times you have to walk down the 18th fairway with a tournament on the line?'

"I told him, 'I just enjoy it. That's the fun part . . . It's getting there (to the 72nd hole) that's the hard work.' "

Nicklaus would had to have been made of stone not to have had chills as he walked the final holes with fans falling out of trees to see him and thousands of people young enough to be his children covering him with words of near worship. Nicklaus may be the only American hero over 40 with whom the world of under-30 remains infatuated.

"You never lose the thrill of that," beamed Nicklaus.

Concerning Sutton, Nicklaus had his usual judicious appraisal.

"His background is not unlike my own. He's come in and had great success right away on tour . . . and that makes it a lot easier, especially if you already know you can play . . . He's got a good attitude, his priorities seem to be in the right places . . . He'll do very, very well . . . Somebody is always going to dominate any sport. He certainly has a head start on everybody else . . . We'll see. Time will take care of that."