On the 36th hole of this U.S. Open, Jack Nicklaus scrunched among the branches of an oversized Christmas tree and prepared to pop a humble punch-shot toward golfing civilization.

His stance was awkward enough; his position in this tournament was even more embarrassing. For the first time in 22 years, Nicklaus was about to miss the cut in the Open.

Reporters following the same obit scent that had proved false about five years ago, about 10 years ago and even about 15 years ago scurried to the scene.

They found a bewildered and weaker than usual Bear on a rough roll in the rough -- but no signs of a corpse.

Go ahead, Nicklaus said with a laugh later, write me off again.

Make me mad. Make my career.

"Let sleepin' Bears alone," snapped Lee Trevino, as he had the last time bulletins of Nicklaus' demise proved premature. That was not long before he won the Open and the PGA in 1980.

"If he wants to quit," Trevino continued, "let him."

Pretty please. Make the majors safe once more for mortals.

"Should he quit?" Trevino said. "Hell, no. He's the best, the best I've ever seen play this game. That goes for Hogan, Jones and Snead. If he'd been playin' when they were, he'd have kicked their (butts), too.

"He might have made them quit."

Nicklaus turned 45 in January. His son Jackie, who was his caddie Friday, was a year old when his father last missed the Open cut, at Brookline in 1963.

"I expected to win that tournament from the moment I teed up," he said. "The difference between then and now is that this year I (only) expected to get into contention."

Coincidentally, the leader in this Open, T.C. Chen, tied the record for 36 holes that Nicklaus, at age 40, set at Baltusrol in 1980.

Had he gotten reacquainted better with a once-lucky driver he had to borrow from Jackie and whittled several strokes off that ugly 149, Nicklaus would have wormed a bit deeper into history.

Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player (from '58 to '79) each completed 22 consecutive Opens.

During a practice round this week, Nicklaus' driver cracked. So he took the one Jackie has been using, the one Nicklaus used to win five majors during the early '70s but is irritatingly different from his latest model.

Nicklaus is a little bit injured, a little bit wild off the tee, a little bit weak, a little bit reflective and a whole lot perplexed. Also very determined.

"He's gotta create the confidence he had three or four years ago," his son admitted. "He's got all the shots, but he's got to get it in his mind that he can do it again. That's always a struggle in golf.

"He'd pull a shot out there and say: 'I didn't used to do that.' He's been pretty hard on himself . . . "

Can he win that 20th major?

"Aw, yeah," Jackie insisted. "We've just gotta get him to believe that."

How devoted Nicklaus still is to winning will determine if he will. For him, last year was lousy in terms of the majors: tie for 21st in the Open, tie for 31st in the British Open, tie for 25th in the PGA and withdrawal from the Masters with back trouble.

This year, he tied for sixth in the Masters. But Jackie, with a victory in the North-South Amateur, has been the family's big tournament winner.

"I'm on the 'Eat to Win' diet," Jack Nicklaus said, jokingly. "If I keep this up, it'll be win to eat."

He said the minor surgery to his left knee last fall was a factor the last two days, although he sank that $240,000 Skins putt not long after the operation.

The knee must be the major reason, he reasons, because the will surely hasn't softened. Unless it has.

Who really knows?

"I've gone through periods of doubt," he said. "But there's no problem (now) being motivated to work at golf. There was a period in the late '60s, a period in the mid-'70s, a period in the end of the '70s when motivation was a problem.

"But I got out of all that, worked hard and came back at 'em. I have two choices: either try or quit. If I quit tournament golf" -- he rattled off what inspires him now -- "it wouldn't fill a thimble of my time.

"I'm a believer that one doesn't lose his skills through age in the mid-40s. Hogan and Snead played their best golf in their 40s. If you lose skills, it's because of lack of work, giving up the discipline required to perform.

"I'm just stubborn enough to work at this a while."

Nicklaus knew he was in danger of missing the cut early on the back nine -- and tried one final charge.

He then proceeded to hit some of his worst iron shots in memory -- and some of the nicest par-saving putts. Out of the Open, he was in no mood to quit.

On that last hole, for instance, he punched a seven-iron from the Christmas tree, then wedged his third shot on the par-4 hole to 17 feet behind the cup.

Father and son studied the putt as though it meant a pass through the Pearly Gates.

"Right to left (break); three inches outside the cup," Jack said.

Jackie nodded. Par.

"I enjoyed making that," Nicklaus said. "That kind of thing (four one-putts in the last five holes) brings you back."

When he wanted to skip an interview with ABC-TV, Bill Fleming was dispatched to offer up-close-and-personal persuasion.

"But I'm not even in the tournament, Bill," Nicklaus argued. "You're still Jack Nicklaus," Fleming replied.

Open case shut. Nicklaus acquiesced.

Later, Jack and Jackie had a conversation near the practice putting area so common at the Open's midpoint but so unfamiliar for them.

Jack: "I don't have much in my locker."

Jackie: "Want me to get it out?"

Near the end of about a half-hour's conversation with the press, Nicklaus hinted that he just might play a casual round later in the afternoon with Jackie.

The scribes seemed startled.

Nicklaus shrugged. Why not? He hadn't planned on anything but golf the rest of the weekend, anyway.