It was half a lifetime ago that Jack Nicklaus won his first U.S. Open. He was 23, young, strong and the golfer who would dominate for most of the next 20 years.

Today in the British Open, looking every bit of 46, Nicklaus walked up to the 18th green at Royal St. George's Golf Club, a man who had fought the elements for two days -- and lost.

This was a far cry from the walks up No. 18 to which Nicklaus has become accustomed. The bleachers were less than half full, the cheers were muted by the howling, gusty wind.

Nicklaus smiled grimly. He loves the British Open -- he has won it three times -- but he doesn't love Royal St. George's. "I'm not saying I don't like the golf course," he said. "I'm just saying it's my least favorite British Open venue."

Four years ago, Nicklaus shot 83 in the first round here. He came back the next day to shoot 66 and make the cut. Today, after an opening-round 77, he could do no better than 75, putting him three strokes over the cutoff. For the first time in 24 years, Nicklaus had missed the cut in the British Open. And, for the first time in his pro career, he had missed the cut at back-to-back major tournaments.

"I played very poorly at the U.S. Open (last month at Birmingham, Mich.)," he said. "But here, I didn't really play that badly. Most of the year, I've played lousy golf. Here, I didn't hit the ball badly. I just didn't make any putts."

This wasn't just another golfer reciting excuses. This was perhaps the greatest golfer of all time, sounding a little bit like a Saturday hacker.

"It's very hard for me to putt in the wind because I stand over the ball longer than the other guys do," he said. "My attitude has been good all week. I came here feeling good after playing well in the Canadian Open (second place) and I went out yesterday trying to attack the golf course. I was thinking, 'Maybe I'll turn around and fool some people.' "

Inevitably, Nicklaus was asked the question all athletes hate, but must face: Is the thought of retirement frightening?

"It's not a frightening subject at all," Nicklaus said. "You think about whether you want to or don't want to. I don't think I'll ever retire as such. I mean, when a man has been president of the United States, when he leaves office, he doesn't really retire. He just finds other things to do, other ways to contribute.

"I'm still a golfer, I still want to compete and win. I spend less time on my business interests now than I did five years ago. I've become a golfer again. Maybe that's my problem."

David Graham, a co-leader in the tournament and one of Nicklaus' closest friends, thinks the problem is the game, not the player. "Golf can be a cruel game," he said. "It can make you wealthy and famous. It can give you great joy, but it can also get you really down.

"Everybody misses cuts. When I miss a cut people say, 'There goes Graham, back to the airport again.' But when Jack misses a cut it's a big thing. But it happens. The game does that to people, to everyone."

It is more likely to do that to someone at 46 than at 26, though. And, when one realizes that Nicklaus missed the cut four times in his first 91 majors and now has missed two in a row, eyebrows are bound to go up.

Nicklaus attributes much of his difficulty to a knee operation last November. "Election day," he said. "I was operated on in the morning, voted in the afternoon."

But the operation has prevented Nicklaus from running and from exercising the way he likes to. He says he feels weaker, especially in the rough, where his brute strength used to get his club through the ball no matter how thick the grass. Now, that's not so.

"I'm really kind of looking forward to the offseason so I can get myself back into shape," Nicklaus said. "Age itself is not really a problem in the game of golf. The question is: How do you want to spend the time and are you willing to work the way you did when you were younger? Most people get tired of working at 45 or 50 as hard as they did at 25. I'm not sure you can be as single-minded as you were when you were younger."

In short, even if the body says yes, the mind might say no. Someone asked Nicklaus if he is as ambitious as he was 20 years ago.

"Of course not," Nicklaus answered. "But I've worked fairly hard at my game this year. Until Canada, I'd played pretty lousy. Right now, though, I think I'm playing pretty well. I'm not going to let one tournament change that feeling."

As Nicklaus prepared to leave, a longtime tournament official put a hand on his arm. Referring to next year's Open, he said softly, "Turnberry next year, Jack?"

Nicklaus smiled the golden smile. "Oh yes," he said. "Absolutely. Turnberry next year."