Great Golf & Exciting Finish at the Kaanapali Champions Skins Game

Nicklaus, Watson defend Skins title
Tandem collects $310,000 to edge O’Meara, Langer

By MATTHEW CARROLL
Article from: The Maui News

KAANAPALI – Practice makes perfect, even for Jack Nicklaus.

Fresh off a two-month stretch of what he called “awful” golf, Nicklaus fired a 6-iron from 137 yards to within 12 feet on the par-3 17th hole and Tom Watson converted the $250,000 birdie putt Sunday as the legendary duo pocketed $310,000 en route to becoming the first tandem to successfully defend its title at the Kaanapali Champions Skins Game.

The pair of Hall of Famers captured the opening two skins on Saturday at the Royal Kaanapali Course and waited patiently over the ensuing 14 holes before the Golden Bear picked the perfect time to pounce, nearly duplicating his best shot of the opening round and locking up the team’s third crown together with seven skins.

“Skins game is a funny game. After birdieing the second hole yesterday, we were hanging in there, we really didn’t do much,” said Nicklaus, owner of a record 18 major championships. “Today we were just sort of hanging around, not really competing. All of sudden, 17, boom! That’s what the game is.

“I’m glad I picked the right hole to make the right shot and I’m glad Tom took the right hole to make the right putt.”

First-round leaders Bernhard Langer and Mark O’Meara were left with $300,000 and seven skins, including the $100,000 “superskin” on the second playoff hole, after Langer’s 15-footer lipped out on the 17th. Fred Couples and Nick Price won two skins and $80,000, as did Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller.

“I’m disappointed that we didn’t win, but Jack hit an amazing shot off the 17th hole after I hit a pretty good one, and the hole was playing pretty tough,” O’Meara said. “He hit a world-class shot and Tom made a world-class putt.”

That’s a far cry from where Nicklaus deemed his game to be recently.

The 71-year old doesn’t hit the links that much anymore – “If I play 10 rounds of golf between now and the time I get back here next year I’ll be just absolutely amazed,” he said – but managed to sneak in a handful of holes during a two-month stretch in Florida prior to his arrival on the Valley Isle.

The greatest golfer of all time is one of few who can call three 78s, a 76 and a 72 “just terrible.”

“I even came out and practiced for the first time in five years,” Nicklaus said. “I hadn’t practiced in five years, where I actually went out to try and practice.

“I was on the verge of hitting the ball decently when I came out here, and actually I really started hitting the ball here.”

It showed Saturday, when he landed a 5-iron from 185 yards within three feet for two skins, and it was evident Sunday, too, never more so than on the final par 3.

“It may be surprising to some, it may be surprising to him, but it’s typical Jack in the way that he looks at his golf game,” said Watson, an eight-time major champion who also won with Nicklaus in 2007. “He looks at it very pragmatically, as I do. That’s why we like each other, ’cause we look at the game very pragmatically.

“He said, ‘When I first came here I was hitting it not very well. Then I found something that worked and then I found another thing that was working I added on top of that, and then I found a third thing that worked and added it on top of that and actually was playing pretty well.’ ”

During Nicklaus’ early-morning practice rounds, the picturesque shot over the fountain-dotted pond played as a 7- or 8-iron. Around 4:30 p.m. Sunday, however, a stiff wind forced him to alter his approach, and teeing off last allowed him to do so.

“I saw the guys try to hit 7-irons and they were hitting the ball, they were spinning it and they were going all over the place,” Nicklaus said. “So I said I’m going to take my 6-iron, choke it down a couple inches and just pick it, and try to make sure I didn’t put any spin on the ball. Which is what I did. It turned out to be a pretty darn good shot.

“Sometimes you have to go back and look in your memory bank and see if you can find something.”

Watson instantly recognized it was the best of the bunch.

“When the ball left his club, it was just boring right through the air, it wasn’t ballooning,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a heck of a shot.”

The stakes just added to the flair of the moment.

After Langer sank a seven-foot birdie worth $80,000 on No. 12, multiple players missed opportunities.

Price – who tapped in for birdie on the 10th for his team’s skins -missed a short birdie try on the 13th, curling the putt around the right side of the cup, and Couples missed a 10-footer for $100,000 on the 14th. After the 15th was halved, Couples again faltered with a big prize on the line, barely missing a downhill 15-footer for birdie on the 16th and carrying the pot over for a fourth straight hole.

“We needed a putt, but you know, today no one really made a putt,” Couples said. “We were in the same ballgame.”

As were Nicklaus and Watson, biding their time before seizing the day.

“Just lurking. We were just dodging bullets out there. We were dodging bullet after bullet after bullet,” Watson said. “We weren’t helping ourselves very much. When Jack hit that shot at 17, I knew it was time to convert.”

They landed in the rough more times than they care to remember, played out of a bunker or two and missed some key putts, yet always remained in the hunt.

Not quite the blueprint for success. But then again, with 26 major championships between the two, coming through in the clutch is nothing new.

“As I said to a lot of people yesterday, I said how would you like to step up on the first tee, and people say, ‘Well who’s your partner?’ ‘Well, my partner is Jack Nicklaus,’ ” Watson said emphatically. “How would you feel like having Jack Nicklaus as your partner?

“That’s the way I feel, always have.”

Couples probably wouldn’t mind the opportunity, either.

“Into the wind here, he hit a beautiful shot. That made the week, really, for me to watch that,” he said. “To see Jack hit that shot, the toughest shot of the day and he was the one who hit it, it was kind of fun to watch.”