As Jack Nicklaus walked up the 18th fairway this evening, the sun was going down on Augusta National Golf Club, just as it is surely going down on Nicklaus' career. The slanting light through the Georgia pine woods lit up his yellow shirt and his receding blond hair.

As he and his 24-year-old son Jack Jr., his caddie, approached the green, Nicklaus slowly raised his left hand, then his right, his left and his right again, to acknowledge the waves of joyous ovation rolling from the crowd. In tens of thousands of minds, a camera shutter was clicking. This, among all the photos in the Nicklaus family album of our minds, would be the frontispiece.

First, he was Ohio Fats, then the Golden Bear and now, finally, most unexpectedly, most sweetly of all, he is the Olden Bear, glorious once again, walking off the final green into legend with his son's arm around him.

Jack Nicklaus won the Masters today.

*For the sixth time. The others were 1963, '65, '66, '72 and '75.

*For his 20th major title.

*With a final round of 7-under-par 65 that culminated a week of relentless recovery from the rear: 74-71-69-65 -- 279.

*With a back-nine score today of 30, tying the course record.

*With six birdies and an eagle on the last 10 holes. "That was as fine a round as I've ever played, especially the last 10 holes," Nicklaus said.

He won by one desperate, slender stroke over Greg Norman (70), who bogeyed the final hole to fall out of a tie, and Tom Kite (68), who'd missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the last hole that would have forced a playoff.

Nicklaus, 46, who first competed here in 1959, won by coming from ninth place, four strokes behind to start the day. In 50 Masters since 1934, only one last-day charge is in the same class -- Gary Player's 64 in 1978 to erase seven shots of handicap.

For glorious spice, Nicklaus won by storming past almost every famous young golfer of this period: not only Norman and Kite, but Seve Ballesteros (70 -- 281, fourth), Tom Watson (71) and defending champion Bernhard Langer (75). They all started ahead of him by two, three or four shots.

Except for Norman, who birdied the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th holes, all these stars faded while Nicklaus rolled through the Amen Corner and the azalea-laden banks of Rae's Creek like a demigod.

Nicklaus won with 300-yard drives such as one that set up an eagle at the 15th hole. A winter fat attack -- he weighs 190 -- has accidentally "got me hitting the ball an awful long way."

He won with cover-the-flag iron shots that his eyes were too weak to see land. "I'm missing the pleasure of seeing my ball finish," he said.

He'll enjoy the replays of the 5-iron fade he hit at the 16th hole. On the heels of his eagle at 15, the ball trickled past the cup -- missing a hole-in-one by perhaps an inch -- and stopped a yard away. Had he followed eagle with ace, the sport of golf might have been discontinued, since no further developments in the game realistically could be expected.

And Nicklaus won with putts that tracked the center of the cup until they disappeared, time after time after time, at the 9th, 10th, 11th, 13th, 15th, 16th and 17th holes.

The first three birdies -- on three of the hardest consecutive par-4s anywhere -- awoke his gallery. The next birdie revived him after a bogey at the 12th when his par putt hit a spike mark and lipped out. His eagle at 15 "really got me going." And his birdie at 16 so unnerved Ballesteros that the leader immediately snap-hooked into Rae's Creek at the 15th and unraveled quickly.

Finally, Nicklaus' birdie at No. 17 put him in front alone and, though Norman caught him briefly, proved to be the final margin of miracle.

His biggest enemy was not his 46 years, although only one older man -- Julius Boros at 48 -- ever had won a major golf championship.

Perhaps no middle-aged man in 20th-century sport has done anything more remarkable, not Pete Rose or George Blanda or anyone.

All week, Nicklaus was in a suppressed fury about countless comments that he should retire; that he never again would win; that, with only two tournament victories and no major titles since 1980, he was deluding himself to stay in the game. Nicklaus even had one of those "Jack Should Quit" newspaper stories pasted on his refrigerator throughout the tournament.

"I kept saying to myself, 'Done, washed up, finished.' I was trying to make myself mad, but it didn't really work too well because I thought it might be true."

His biggest enemies were not that roused and ravenous Great White Shark from Australia, nor the Small Gray Kite from Texas who hung on like a terrier for yet another Masters disappointment. From the moment that Ballesteros snap-hooked an iron shot into the water to the left of the 15th -- making bogey to fall back to 8 under par, rather than getting a birdie to reach 10 under -- Nicklaus was at the top of the leader board, sometimes tied, but never again headed.

Nicklaus' biggest problem was a surprise even to him. It was the tears in his eyes. From the 14th hole on, the vast crowds would not stop their worship, and "four or five times" he started to cry and had to lecture himself, "We have to play golf. This isn't over. . . .

"I was so pumped up by the crowds that all I knew was, I was hittin' it on the greens and makin' birdies and I was goin' to keep doin' it. . . .

"What I really don't understand is how I could keep making putts in the state I was in. I was so excited I shouldn't have been able to pull it back at all, much less pull it back like I wanted to. But I did. One perfect stroke after another. When I don't get nervous, I don't make anything. Maybe I've been doing it backwards."

After Nicklaus' 15-foot birdie dropped at the 17th hole -- completing a birdie-birdie-birdie-bogey-birdie-par-eagle-birdie-birdie streak in which he'd made putts of 10, 25, 20, 1, 18, 3 and 15 feet -- the crowd knew it was part of perhaps the most exciting and memorable day in the history of the sport. What, since Bobby Jones' Grand Slam in 1930, would come close? Hogan's comeback, perhaps. Nicklaus' own victory in the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol is now a poor runner-up on the goose-pimple meter.

"You're the man, Bear," bellowed one good old boy who, turning to his neighbors, laughed and said, "And he sure is, ain't he?"

Kite, who has finished in the top six here in nine of the past 11 years, was stunned that his final 10-foot putt at the 18th, which would have given him a round of 67, curled around the cup. "How that putt did what it did . . .

"At least this time I did everything I could do to win. I felt like I lost the tournament the other time [finishing second to Ben Crenshaw in '84] . . . . This one, I almost won."

Kite murmured, "He was as close to being out of the golf tournament as you can be and still have any chance at all."

Norman was so proud of his four straight birdies to tie Nicklaus that he seemed not to recall his sins. He double-bogeyed the 10th hole -- for the second time in the tournament -- with two snap hooks. Far worse, he spun off his 4-iron approach to the 18th from the center of the fairway when he seemed to have a playoff safely in hand.

"When we got to the 14th hole, there were only about 50 people left in our gallery," said Norman. "They were all up with Nicklaus. . . . The noise they made today makes the '84 U.S. Open at Winged Foot feel like playing through a graveyard. . . . I told Nick [Price], 'Let's wake these people up and show them we're still here.' And we did."

By the time Norman had made birdie putts of 12, 25, two and 12 feet to draw even with Nicklaus, the whole 10th fairway was lined 10 deep with fans awaiting a playoff. Perhaps they'd forgotten how Norman, on the 72nd hole of the '84 Open, had spun off a mid-iron shot and fanned it 50 yards dead right. Then he sank a miraculous 40-foot putt for par to force a playoff with Fuzzy Zoeller. Remember Fuzzy's waving towel?

This time, Norman hit the same gruesome fall-back and spin-out atrocity -- 100 feet wild to the right. But this time he couldn't come close on the final 15-foot par putt.

"I was sitting watching on TV as Norman kept making birdies," said Nicklaus. "So, when he came to that last putt, I said, 'Maybe I'll stand up.'

"I like to win golf tournaments with my clubs, not on other people's mistakes," said Nicklaus, apologetic that he would root against anyone. "But when you're coming to the finish [of a career] . . . I'm in the December of my career . . . Well, somebody did something to me at Pebble Beach as I remember."

Norman also remembered Tom Watson's miraculous wedge shot in that '82 U.S. Open that turned almost certain Nicklaus victory into defeat. "Maybe he deserves it after what Watson did to him," said Norman.

For the past 10 months, Nicklaus has been in his most serious period of self-doubt. Last summer, his weight down to 170 pounds, he missed the cut in the U.S. and British opens. He ended the year 43rd on the money list and winless. This spring, in seven events, he was horrid, missing three cuts, withdrawing once and winning only $4,404. Everywhere the same thought sprang up like a brush fire: Jack, retire, please.

"I was in Atlanta last week and people kept asking if I'd retire," said Nicklaus. "I told them, 'I'm not going to quit playing when I'm like this.' I've played too well for too long to let a relatively short period of time be the last time I play golf.

"Now, I know you're expecting me to say, 'I retire.' Well, maybe I should quit right now, but I'm not that smart. . . . I've said 100 times that I'm not as good as I once was. I just want to be occasionally as good as I once was. Today I was."