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Nicklaus bringing new enthusiasm to 22nd pro season

A big advertising agency recently surveyed television viewers about professional athletes. Jack Nicklaus came out first in believability. We have to take him seriously, then, when he says he is ''very seriously committed'' to his game this year, and probably will play more tournaments.

The greatest golfer in history played well last year, even if it went pretty much unnoticed. Tom Watson, after all, was the big story of 1982 as he won both the US and British Opens while putting together the year that brought him finally and irrevocably out of the long shadow of Nicklaus. But the Golden Bear didn't exactly spend the year in hibernation.

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At Pebble Beach in June, for instance, Jack appeared to have won a precedent-shattering fifth US Open, only to see Watson sink that now-famous recovery shot on the 17th hole and beat him.

Nicklaus admits that his shocking setback in the Open knocked the enthusiasm out of him for the rest of the season. He builds his schedule around the major championships, the ultimate measure of greatness, and points particularly keenly for the Open.

But still, objectively, Jack played well enough to win the Open, and did win the Colonial National Invitation as well as accumulate two other seconds and two thirds.

By anybody else's standards, it was a fine year. ''It was a much better year than the public or the press appreciated,'' he says.

During the off season, Nicklaus reflected on his play and his desire to prolong a professional career that now spans 22 years at the top of his sport (he won the US Open in 1962 as a rookie pro).

''I got over losing at Pebble Beach, which affected me more than I'd thought, '' he says. ''I decided I still have a great deal to play for.''

Primarily Nicklaus is playing to win a 20th major championship - not that anyone is that likely to threaten his present record of 19. He also can attain the nice round total of 70 tour victories (his 69 is second only to Sam Snead's 84) with one more title. Yet another goal, to become the game's first $4 million winner, was achieved last weekend with a sixth-place finish in the Crosby Pro-Am.

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''I'm hitting the ball from tee to green better than ever, and my chipping and pitching are better,'' he reflects. ''Now if I can just get my putting back on track, everything will be fine.''

Late last year Nicklaus was reminded that his right arm used to play a more active role accelerating the putter through the ball. He has reworked his stroke , and is optimistic about the consequences.

''I'm really enthusiastic again about playing and practicing,'' he says. ''I'll hit more practice balls this year. I'm enjoying golf.''

Also during the off season, Nicklaus grew a beard, which came in bright red, if not too thickly. He started it while hunting elephants on a safari in Africa.

Tour commissioner Deane Beman has been known to frown on beards, but that wasn't the reason Nicklaus shaved his prior to this season's first tournament. He bowed to a higher authority: his wife Barbara said the beard had to come off.

Nicklaus has other, more vested reasons for wanting to play well in 1983. He is a virtual one-man conglomerate off the course, and keeping his name in lights is good for business.

He has taken over the MacGregor Golf Co., which is coming out with new equipment lines bearing his name (Jack is playing MacGregor's yellow ball this year) and he is working on some two dozen golf course design projects.

''I'm going to try to travel less on other business this year, to help my game,'' he says. ''I'm coordinating my tour trips and my course work more closely. I don't want to be going back and forth to Japan and Australia, for example.''

Having played the two early celebrity tournaments, the Hope and the Crosby, in which he birdied four of the last five holes to finish a strong 8-under-par, Nicklaus may not play again until the Tournament Players Championship in late March. Then his domestic schedule will be heavy up through the US Open in June, at Oakmont near Pittsburgh.

Wouldn't you know that's where he beat Arnold Palmer in an exciting playoff to win his first Open in his first tournament as a professional back in 1962.

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