By Brian Keogh
He might have a ceramic hip and a dodgy leg but Golden Bear Jack Nicklaus still gunning for the only major title that still eludes him - the £500,000 MasterCard Senior British Open at Royal County Down.

Three days of links golf have sparked the desire of old and the Bear is hungry to conquer the rugged par-71 track that demands an ability to negotiate high dunes, avoid more than 120 fiendish bunkers and calculate an astonishing 22 blind shots.

And while Nicklaus has all he shots to win the championship, the 61 year old has to hope that his body can handle the strain.

"The hip is practically the only part of me that doesn't hurt but sure I think I can win," he said. "I wanted to come over to play in Royal Portrush a few years ago but it didn't work out but I'm here now and I'm here to win.

"I have had a bit of a problem in my right leg after I pulled a hamstring recently. I have to take a bit more of a narrow stance and I don't use my legs as much as I used to but I'm swinging the club quite nicely.

"I think I can win, after all these guys are my age too, most of them. There are a few kids out there but I think that if I play smart, solid golf then I'll have a chance.

"I'm looking forward to it. I love this kind of golf. It's fun, it's different. The shots you never get to play at home and every time I come back I say, gee, I missing out on all this. It's a great golf course and with a lot of blind shots so I that's why I came over on Monday to play three practice rounds.

"I used to get 10 practice rounds for the British Open but on this course you need to learn where to place your shots. It's fun to use you head and play the shots we don't play at home."

But while Gary Player was less than happy with the blind holes at Royal County Down and joked about use a bulldozer on some of the dunes, Nicklaus wouldn't move a thing.

He said: "There's a few blind shots. Big deal. There's no point in getting fussy over it. This course was routed for golfers over 100 years ago and that's why it is the way it is. If it was built on the same piece of ground today it would be a different golf course, because in today's litigious society we can't design a blind hole.

"If I have a blind feature the client will make me take it out because people sue. But here we accept the course as it is and try and meet the challenge."

Drawn with New Zealander Simon Owen and Neil Coles for today's first round, the Bear will also get the chance to relive his Open dual with Kiwi at St Andrew's in 1978.

In a famous head to head confrontation over the final round, Nicklaus birdied the 16th while Owen overshot the green to card a bogey and eventually finish tied second, two shots behind, with Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and Ray Floyd.

"I have a lot of memories of that day. He made a mental error on 16 and I made birdie. Hit a nine-iron 126 yards into a crosswind, you can check it but I won't be far off on that, not more than a yard or two."

Owen said: "I have a lot of memories too. I might not have won that day but I gave it my best shot. In any case it's not disgrace to lose to somebody like Nicklaus. He was the world's best golfer at the time and he's still a star."

But a lot has changes since that first Nicklaus win at St Andrew's and the great man is still calling for the USGA and the R and A to control the distance the modern ball can fly. The fact that Tiger Woods won the Open at the home of golf two years ago without finding one bunker in four days was a real indication of technology gone mad for Nicklaus.

He said: "In my day the bunkers were always in play but for Tiger and 20 other guys they weren't a factor. We can move the golf course back but I think we have to reduce the distance the ball flies about ten percent. We need rules for tournament play. It's okay for the average golfer to have a driver that goes 60 yards further but for tournament play you need rules that are uniform all over the world.

"The R and A and the USGA agreed on the big ball many years ago and I'm sure they will come together again to decide on the tolerance allowed for clubs and balls so that we don't have clubs that are legal on one side of the Atlantic and illegal on the other."

Nicklaus also had some words of comfort for Ian Woosnam after his Open exploits, where he was handed a two shot penalty for carrying an extra club. "I have a lot of sympathy for Ian but I also have a lot of sympathy for the caddie. I ask my caddie if we have the right number but I still walk over and count them myself because it's the player's responsibility.

"It happened to me twice. Once with Deane Beman in a team event and one when I caddied for my son Gary in US Open qualifying. I counted the numbers on the clubs ­ two iron, three iron and so on, but during the round I realised that we had two four-irons, mine and his. They were identical clubs. Even though I made the mistake it was Gary who was ultimately responsible."

But if Nicklaus is confident of his ability to pull off yet another Major win, Ireland's Denis O'Sullivan is simply in awe of the great man.

Despite four wins in his last 11 starts, the Cork golfer doesn't see himself as the man in form.

"I haven't been putting particularly well but I've been lucky. I feel I can win every week but it's a lot to do with attitude. I like the course and if the wind blows it will suit me. The secret on this course is to drive the ball well and I can do that here and I don't have a fear.

"I've been hitting the ball nicely and putting myself in position and if I can get it going I'll have a chance.

"Nicklaus has always been my hero and I went out to see him practising at the US PGA. It's a thrill to be playing in the same
tournament as him. It's a great field and players like Nicklaus and Palmer bring a great deal to this championship.