Friday, January 26, 2001
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Posted on: Friday, January 26, 2001

Golf's all-time greatest go searching for gold at Wailea

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

Senior Skins 2001 is a collision of four extremely familiar faces and one unfamiliar golf course.

This weekend’s Senior Skins Game tees off tomorrow morning at Wailea’s Gold Course, after spending the last 11 years at Mauna Lani. Of the fearsome foursome — defending champion Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin — only Irwin has seen the course before this week.

The Gold is the infant of Wailea’s three courses. It was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and opened in 1994, when it was honored as one of the country’s 10 best new resort courses by Golf Magazine and Golf Digest. It also received a historic preservation award from the Maui Historical Society.

"The Gold Course was designed from the start to host tournaments," Jones said. "It was classically styled and purposefully made longer and stronger than the average resort course."

That suits Nicklaus, who said he got a commitment from commissioner Tim Finchem that the tour would make the senior sites more challenging, at the request of the players.

"If that’s the case," Nicklaus said, "I think you will see more of the better players come to the top. That’s one of the reasons why I play very little on the senior tour because, outside of the senior majors, most of the courses are fairly easy and fairly short and 64’s, 65’s and 66’s are the norm.

"You know that’s not my cup of tea. I’ve always loved tougher courses and those that challenged me got me more excited. I never liked a putting contest."

Wailea senior head pro Rick Castillo believes the most dramatic differences between Wailea and Mauna Lani will be the "lack of wind" and a different grass, particularly on the greens. The Gold has 93 bunkers and one lake (No. 14), which requires a golfer to start the ball over the water if he wants to draw it. The par-4 sixth hole is 264 yards, usually plays downwind and could be driven by any of the four men.

Between them, they have won 239 tournaments and nearly $37 million. For the next two days, all they care about are 18 skins worth $600,000.

"You have to pretend there is no next hole," Irwin said of the format. "You have to think very aggressively right off the bat. ... Even if you take a foolish gamble, it’s really not that foolish because somebody will always back you up, unless you are the last to hit."

Player, 65, admits his goal at this stage of his career is to be the first golfer to win in six decades. He is "fitter than last year" and has no intention of slowing.

Irwin, the puppy of the group at 55, is still tearing up the senior tour. He is waiting for the birth of a grandchild next month to set his schedule.

Palmer, 71, and Nicklaus, 61, are less sure of their plans.

Nicklaus will evaluate his game early, then decide his future, including this year’s Masters. He is not planning to play the other three majors.

"This doesn’t mean I’m done playing the majors," Nicklaus said. "I may play some in the future, but primarily my golf will be on the senior tour. I haven’t been very competitive in recent years on the senior tour, but I’m not sure I was over my hip operation (he had hip replacement surgery two years ago) until the last few months.

"I’m stronger and want to give myself a chance to play. I don’t want to burden a field with somebody who can’t play."

Palmer’s most recent victories were three Senior Skins Games in the ’90’s. He was in 14 senior events and three regular tour events last year, and played in his 1,000th overall Tour event in July. That schedule included his 46th Masters appearance. He is planning on No. 47.

"The Masters is something I will always play as long as I can play," Palmer said. "I watched the guys before me play up to the end at Augusta. I think that being there is a special thing for the golfing public."

SHORT PUTTS: The inaugural Senior Skins Game was played at Turtle Bay in 1988. The second was at La Quinta, Calif. ... Jack Nicklaus will receive the first ESPY Lifetime Achievement Award.

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