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Nicklaus wins biggest check of career
by Associated Press

WAILEA, Hawaii (AP) - Jack Nicklaus was shocked'' by his performance in the Champions Skins Game. His opponents weren't even surprised.

Returning from a long layoff following back surgery, Nicklaus won 11 straight skins and a career-high $340,000 on Saturday in a runaway victory over Craig Stadler.

"I'm totally shocked. I have no way to explain it," said Nicklaus, who boosted his career Champion Skins Game records to $2,005,000 and 78 skins.

Nicklaus, who turned 65 last month and hadn't played a competitive round of golf since June 2004, rode on the back of a cart for much of the round because of a strained hamstring. He had back surgery on Nov. 23.

"He moans and complains about the hips, back, legs, everything and then he kind of lulls you to sleep and then he makes four birdies in a row," Stadler said. "I'm not surprised by anything he does."

Stadler, the 2004 Champions Tour player of the year, was second with five skins and $180,000 in his first appearance in the event. Defending champion Tom Watson earned $80,000 for his two late skins, and Arnold Palmer was blanked for the third time in four years.

Nicklaus, also the 1991 winner, sealed the victory in the made-for-TV tournament by holing a 14-foot birdie putt - his third straight birdie - for $40,000 on the 548-yard No. 15th. On the previous hole, Nicklaus hit a spectacular 6-iron from 165 yards to set up a 4-foot birdie putt for five skins and $170,000.

"I was very pleased with the way I play," he said. "I certainly don't have any power yet. I've just got to get my legs back."

Nicklaus said his goal to play in the Masters and the British Open this year, but doesn't know if he'll be ready for Augusta.

The 51-year-old Stadler, the youngest in the group, set the pace early by outdriving his competition. He birdied three of the first four holes to take four skins and $80,000. With four skins and $100,000 on the line on the par-3 eighth, Stadler had a chance to expand his lead but missed his 6-foot birdie attempt an inch to the left.

Nicklaus halved the hole by two-putting from 18 feet to begin his run.

Stadler said being the youngest isn't really an advantage.

"All the pressure goes on the young guys here," he said. "You come in at 51, you got all the pressure of being the so-called favorite in the event and then the 60 year old goes and steals all your cash.

"Where was the 60 year old?" Nicklaus asked.

"I meant 60-plus. I was being nice to you," Stadler said.

"It's 60-plus, plus, plus, plus, plus," Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus got on the board with an 8-foot birdie putt on the 353-yard ninth to pick up five skins and $130,000 as the sunsplashed gallery roared.

Stadler's 4-footer to halve the hole lipped out. But he won the big-money 18th hole, making a 20-foot birdie putt to earn another $100,000.

The first six holes were worth $20,000, Nos. 7-12 $30,000, the next five $40,000 and No. 18 $100,000.

Stadler, who won five events on the Champions Tour last year, has already been busy this year. He tied for seventh in the MasterCard Championships and played two events on the PGA Tour. He tied for ninth in the Sony Open and tied for 14th last weekend in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

He said playing with three Hall of Famers can't be beat.

"I would say this week you had three legends and myself. I don't quite consider myself a legend," he said. "It's great to be with these three guys. I would play with Arnold every day of the week if I had the chance. I just love playing with him, being around him."

Watson picked up his first skin of the day on the 216-yard No. 16, bending his birdie putt right to left and into the hole for $40,000. He made a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 17 to win another skin worth $40,000.

Last year, he won at Wailea with a par on the third playoff hole worth five skins and $260,000, for a winning total of 10 skins and $400,000.

"Nothing surprises me about Jack," Watson said. "Yesterday, he was hitting the ball terribly. Today, he was in a better position and it was the Jack of old."

Nicklaus said his goal to play in the Masters and the British Open this year, but doesn't know if he'll be ready for Augusta.

Palmer, 75, was the shortest off the tees and just missed several birdie attempts through the day.

"I had a bad day and I didn't make any putts," he said.

Conditions at the Wailea Golf Club's Gold Course were balmy with the slightest of ocean breezes. The scenic layout runs along the base of the dormant volcano Haleakala and features views of the Pacific Ocean.

The players took a 20-minute break after the ninth hole to change shirts, to make it appear they were playing on two different days for television.


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