So, how on earth did Jack Nicklaus win the Masters? The sun has gone down and come up. The tidal waves of purple prose have receded. And the time has come to ask: How does a man go from the worst slump of his life to his greatest victory overnight?

All the talk here about emotion, tears and character is just dandy, but the old man still had to hit the golf ball, didn't he?

How could Nicklaus crank out 300-yard drives, nearly hole out iron shots, chip like a demon and make almost every putt he looked at in his 65 on Sunday?

Isn't this the same 46-year-old who has had his fellow pros covering their eyes all spring? One week ago, this man was getting clubhouse pity. Even on Saturday night, Tom Kite recalled, "We were talking at dinner, and I said I not only thought Jack couldn't win this tournament, I said I didn't think he'd ever win another one."

At Phoenix: 60th. Missed the cut at Pebble Beach, shooting 80. In Hawaii: 39th. Missed the cut at Eagle Trace. On Doral's Blue Monster, his pet track: 47th. In New Orleans: withdrew. And at the TPC, Nicklaus missed the cut and played so badly he begged for help from Jack Grout, his only teacher since age 10.

Not much was wrong with the Golden Bear's game. Just his full swing, his short game, his putting, his weight, his attitude and his confidence.

So, one by one, in two weeks, he cured them all. That might be tougher than shooting 30 on the final nine holes of Augusta National, which should, henceforward, be known as Jack's Back.

Grout, recovering from heart surgery, was the first comeback catalyst, lecturing Nicklaus, "We're going to solve this [swing] problem."

"I was hitting it all over the world, especially with my irons," said Nicklaus. "When I had an 8- or 9-iron, I'd be thinking about birdie and walk off the green with bogey. That's maddening."

Grout found the problem. "I was playing more and more with my hands," said Nicklaus. "When I played well, I was very quiet at the top and very quiet at the finish. I had been too violent with my hands going through the hitting area.

"You have to play with feel. If you don't, you're wasting your time. When you have to make five or six yards of difference in a club, you have the feel of it." And that old touch started returning.

Once Nicklaus "took his hands out of the swing," he started hitting the ball with full body force. And that was lucky, too, because he had more body -- at 190 pounds -- than he had allowed himself in years. He had hated that tummy in March, but now it was giving him extra yards. That, in turn, encouraged Nicklaus to think "power" -- the style that suits Augusta National so perfectly.

Next, son Jack Jr. came home after some short-game lessons from Chi Chi Rodriguez. "He went from the worst short game I've ever seen to being very, very good," said Nicklaus. "So I had him teach me what Chi Chi had taught him -- take the wrists out of the chipping as much as possible. I've chipped beautifully this week."

To try to help stir his competitive nature, Nicklaus asked Jack Jr. to caddie for him in the Masters. "If it wasn't for my kids, I probably wouldn't be playing now. You've got to have a reason for doing things," said Nicklaus. "Last time I won [at the Memorial in 1984], Jackie caddied for me."

Nicklaus started getting a tingle in practice rounds. One night just before the Masters, Nicklaus said he told his wife Barbara, "I think I found that fellow out there I used to know."

All these factors, however, count for nothing if a golfer can't roll the ball in the hole. As always, Nicklaus approached this problem analytically, having the self-confidence in his own intelligence to dissect and revamp a basic part of his game. Few athletes trust their minds as much as their muscles. Nicklaus trusts his more.

"As I've gotten older, I've fallen into the habit of decelerating the putter head at the moment of impact, instead of accelerating," he said, finding a polite way to say that, as your nerves go, so do your guts. You just can't make yourself hit the ball anymore.

Instead of railing against one of the facts of life, Nicklaus the club builder and golf theorist tried to find a new sort of putter to replace his faithful blade.

"I wanted something with the largest possible moment of inertia and the smallest dispersion factor," he said. The man sure has a way with words.

He wanted a new critter that looked more like a war club than a putter. Last month Nicklaus showed off his new putter to Tom Watson, who couldn't contain himself and said, "Looks like you're goin' out to kill something for dinner, Jack."

Gradually, Nicklaus saw putting progress. "I was really rolling the short putts well, though I'm not as good a long putter with this one." He could grind in the six-footers for par, but not the 15-footers for birdies.

Each Masters day he hit the ball closer to the hole. Each day he was more frustrated. On Saturday night, in ninth place, four shots out of the lead, Nicklaus said, "If I could make a few putts, I might surprise somebody. Like myself."

Come Sunday, no surprises. Nicklaus immediately missed putts of 20, 18, 5, 22 and 10 feet. By the time he had reached the ninth green, his patience was almost shot.

"What do you see?" Nicklaus said he asked his caddie son of their 10-foot birdie putt.

"Left edge."

"How about an inch out to the right?" said the disbelieving father.

And they both laughed.

"I figured he saw something I was missing," said Nicklaus, "so we split the difference. We had some fun with it."

And made the putt.

"That got me started."

All the pieces were in sync. Distance, accuracy, touch around the greens and the illusion that no putt was too long to make. The huge crowds took care of providing adrenaline, and 26 previous visits to the Masters took care of experience.

On his 12-foot eagle putt at the 15th, Nicklaus suddenly remembered he'd had the same exact putt in 1975 and misread it. "It's not what it looks like," he said he told Jackie. Then rolled it in the heart. The noise, trapped back in the woody corner of the course, was so loud it was painful.

With every step, memories came back to Nicklaus. As he stood over the 15-foot putt at the 17th that might give him his sixth green jacket, Nicklaus told Jackie, "This putt is impossible to read." So he just hit it at the hole. "It wiggled left, wiggled back right and went in the center."

An old coach's insight, a few extra pounds, some chipping lessons from his son, a new goofy-looking putter and a lot of experience at handling pressure in the pines. That, outwardly, is the solution to the riddle.

And there was one more answer. For a quarter of a century, Nicklaus has been distinguished by his ability to accept the fact that golf is an unmasterable game. That knowledge is the key to being a master. Instead of searching for a perfect method, or clinging to what has worked in the past, Nicklaus constantly reworks and remolds his game, enjoying the very same process of perpetual loss and rediscovery that panics and infuriates other players.

Many would like to see Nicklaus retire now in his most heralded hour.

There is, however, a contrary point of view. Isn't it possible that on Sunday, this master of remastery earned the right to stay on center stage -- tinkering and persevering and learning about his game -- as long as he chooses?