Saturday, January 31, 2004

[ GOLF ]

Tom Watson watched his drive on the second hole of the Wailea Gold Course yesterday. Watson took the lead at $70,000.

Nostalgia reigns
at Skins

Palmer and Nicklaus provide
some magic moments

WAILEA, Maui >> Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus walked up the ninth fairway together, evoking so many memories for the large gallery following this week's famous foursome at The Wendy's Champions Skins Game.

Their counterparts at yesterday's made-for-TV event, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, stayed out of the fairway spotlight provided by a setting sun at the Wailea Golf Club Gold Course, as the applause rose for the game's legendary twosome.

How many more times Nicklaus and Palmer will walk side-by-side in a competitive golf tournament is anyone's guess, but for those lining both sides of the ninth fairway it was a Kodak moment.

Watson wound up with three skins and $70,000 during yesterday's opening nine holes. Nicklaus procured three skins worth $60,000 and Palmer turned a pair of deuces on the par 3s into two skins worth $50,000. Defending champion Lee Trevino, who fell in a bunker in Houston a couple of weeks ago, injuring his hip, didn't have any. He halved the par-4 ninth with Palmer and Watson to force a carryover to the 10th this afternoon.

"Tomorrow is another day," Trevino said. "So, we'll see."

Nearly three years removed from his last skin, Palmer decided to do something rash during the opening nine holes -- he putted cross-handed. He relayed a story of putting that way many years ago and turning a woeful 39 on the front side to a 30 on the back. When asked if he would putt that way again today, Trevino cut him off at the pass by saying, "I am."

Palmer will continue his new stroke as well. It led to four birdies.

"I haven't had that many in a year," Palmer interjected when realizing he made birdie putts at Nos. 3, 6, 8 and 9. "I had a lot of fun out there today."

Nicklaus had some fun of his own, something that has been missing the last two years for arguably the greatest player in the history of professional golf. Back and hip problems have plagued the Golden Bear enough to make him think of taking up fishing full-time. Having a chance to win is the only reason to play for him.

Unofficially, he shot a 64 yesterday. Nicklaus had a 32 in the morning pro-am and a 32 yesterday in the skins portion of the round. He said it was the first time he had ever shot his age.

"And that's pretty good I think," Nicklaus said. "Maybe I can come out and shoot a 32 against these guys tomorrow to make it official. I shot 60s in every round last week (en route to a sixth-place finish at the MasterCard Championship on the Big Island), and in the 60s today. That's not bad.

"I'm never going to beat the world again. I might beat these guys occasionally (in a format like this one), but not always. I had a lot of fun today, hit a lot of good shots, a lot of good recoveries. I am looking forward to tomorrow. It's been fun playing golf the last few weeks. It's not fun when you're hurting."

It was enjoyable early and often for those attending yesterday's opening nine holes. After Trevino and Watson halved the first hole, Nicklaus made an eagle putt from 15 feet to win the first two skins on the par-5 second. He passed Raymond Floyd for first on the all-time Champions Tour skins money list with the putt.

Arnold Palmer hit from a bunker on the fifth hole yesterday in Wailea, Maui, yesterday. Palmer, 74, had two skins, worth $50,000.

In his career, Nicklaus has 68 skins worth $1.665 million. He picked up his third of the day with a 10-foot birdie putt at the par-4 fourth. On that hole, Nicklaus yanked his drive to the left of the fairway, but came in close with a brilliant second shot that left the crowd oohing and aaahing at this recovery.

"I was hitting the ball straight as an arrow, then missed four fairways, all left," said Nicklaus, who worked on the driving range for about a half-hour before meeting the press.

"Sorry about that," Nicklaus explained. "But if I come in here and then try to go back to the range, well, that's too tough. But I solved my problem after hitting about 10 balls."

Palmer solved his problems as well. He and Trevino said the only way to beat longer hitters like Nicklaus and Watson was to get a couple of 2s on the scoring card. And that's just what Palmer did.

He hit a 4-iron a little heavy at the par-3 third hole. But because he had a little too much club, the cut shot settled about 5 feet from the pin. He sank the putt, steady and true, to make it fun for him as well. It had been nearly three years since he won a skin.

"I feel very fortunate," Palmer said. "I knew all three of these guys have length on me, and I knew I was going to have to try something different. I can remember when I played the Skins Game and the par 5s were my meat, like Tom did today. That day is gone.

"But on the other hand, I hit a couple of good shots on the par 3s, and as Lee said, if you make some deuces, you might win. I hadn't putted cross-handed seriously, in oh, God, must have been 30 years.

"Mark McCormack once said to me at Turnberry, I pulled a putt at the ninth to shoot 39. But the back nine, I putted cross-handed and shot 30. Mark said you have to putt that way all the time. But the next day I went out and putted conventionally and shot 76. End of story."

Watson's story was what you would expect for a man only 54. He had five birdies, including one on the par-5 seventh that led to his three skins worth $70,000. The other four were halved by Trevino at the first, lost to Nicklaus' eagle at the second, halved by Nicklaus at the fifth, by Palmer at the sixth, and by Palmer and Trevino at the ninth.

"Unfortunately, I have the length on these gentlemen, and it showed at the seventh," Watson said. "I'm proud of this guy (Palmer). He's not supposed to do that at his age. You can't hear or you don't listen, which is it?"

Palmer paused a moment, then said, "A little of both."


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