KAANAPALI, Hawaii – It’s days like these that give Jack Nicklaus the itch to return.
“I would love to go out and play again, I really would – if I had the ability to do so,” said Nicklaus, days away from his 70th birthday. “If I had the vehicle to do it, I would play in a heartbeat.”
No one knows that better than his partner Tom Watson.
Nicklaus and Watson took the first seven skins worth $220,000 on Saturday to build a big lead after nine holes in the Champions Skins Game. The 2007 champions and Hall of Fame duo set the pace early with birdies on five of the first seven holes.
Nicklaus gave credit to Watson.
“I don’t know if I’m competing. I always say, we’re competing,” he said. “If I was out there by myself, I wouldn’t be competing.”
With the first four skins carrying over to the par-4 fifth, Nicklaus hit an aggressive wedge from 115 yards to 3 feet. Watson dropped the birdie putt to capture five skins and $150,000.
Two holes later, Watson drained a 10-foot downhill birdie putt for two more skins worth $70,000. Just as impressive was how he persuaded Nicklaus to switch from a 6-iron to a 5-iron on the approach.
Fred Couples, making his Champions Tour debut, and Nick Price were in second place with one skin worth $40,000. Defending champions Fuzzy Zoeller and Ben Crenshaw, who earned a record $530,000 last year, were shut out on the first day of the alternate-shot event, as were 74-year-old Gary Player and Loren Roberts.
In the media room, Watson turned reporter and asked his partner if it hurts that he’s not playing competitively any more. Nicklaus’ last tournament was at St. Andrews in 2005.
“It hurts all the time,” Nicklaus responded.
“Not your body, but that you’re not playing competitive golf,” Watson said.
“My head is part of my body, isn’t it?” Nicklaus said. “I always would love to keep playing golf. Everybody would love to keep playing. Golf is my vehicle to competition. Competing is what I love doing. When you lose the vehicle, you don’t want to go out and embarrass yourself.”
Nicklaus said he even considered playing a couple events this year because of the global downturn in golf course design.
“Then … I see Freddie Couples hitting 100 yards by me, I’m saying, ‘I don’t think that’s such a good idea,’” Nicklaus said.
Couples, who turned 50 in October and plans to split his time between the two tours, and Price clearly outhit the competition, but had trouble finding the generous fairways on this scenic resort course located at the base of the West Maui Mountains.
From the right rough, Price almost took out a Banyan tree on the third hole and Couples’ drive two holes later sailed over spectators and into the shrubs of one of the mansions that line the course.
The newcomers did earn a skin on No. 8 with Price sinking a 12-foot birdie. Price shook his fist and gave Couples a fist bump.
It was an uncharacteristic performance for Couples. He played 14 original Skins Games, winning five times and earning a record $4.1 million.
“Freddie Couples is the King of Skins,” Nicklaus said. “He plays more skins, wins more money in November than anybody else. The only difference is, it’s not November.”
Nicklaus hasn’t done so bad himself. The 73-time PGA Tour winner is making his 20th appearance in the Champions Skins Game, where he entered this weekend as the career leader in skins (104) and money ($2.4 million).
But Nicklaus and Watson were shut out last year, after coming in second in 2008 ($270,000), winning in 2007 ($320,000) and second in 2006 ($260,000).
Sun-splashed fans were treated to a rare Golden Bear sighting. The six-time Masters champion isn’t expected to play any other events this year.
After Zoeller chipped in for birdie on No. 3, Nicklaus rammed in a 10-foot birdie putt from the fringe, halving the hole.
“That was more like a Watson putt than a Nicklaus putt,” Watson said. “A Nicklaus putt just kind of dies in the hole. A Watson putt goes to the back of the hole, goes up about 2-3 inches in the air and goes in and that’s how he made that putt.”
With 10 skins worth $510,000 available on Sunday, including the $100,000 “Super Skin” on 18, the title is still up for grabs. Zoeller and Crenshaw are trying to become the first team to repeat. It would be a third straight title for Zoeller, who won with Jacobsen in 2008.