Thursday, March 6, 2003

Fitter, slimmer Nicklaus back with Masters on mind

The Associated Press

MIAMI - Sweat was streaming down Jack Nicklaus' face even before he got to the first tee. He was met by more than 100 people, an unusually large gallery considering this was only a pro-am round, and the midday heat was stifling.

Nicklaus sightings are rare on the PGA Tour.

The Ford Championship at Doral is only his second regular tour event in the last 22 months, but the 63-year-old Golden Bear has his reasons for playing.

His health is better than it has been in two years, and Nicklaus is looking trim. As much as anything, though, the Masters is on his mind.

"If I'm thinking about Augusta, or the Memorial Tournament, or if I'm thinking about anything, why wait until I can see if I can play golf again?" Nicklaus said after completing a practice round during which temperatures reached the mid-80s.

A year ago, Nicklaus had to skip the Masters for only the second time since 1959 because of back problems. His days are numbered, anyway, because of the new policy that cuts off participation for former champions after age 65.

Nicklaus said he has not made up his mind about Augusta, although signs point to him playing in his 44th Masters.

He is realistic about his game - this week at Doral, next month at the Masters.

"What difference does it make? I'm not going to compete, anyway," he said. "Whether I'm going to wave to people as I run by? That's fine. I'm not too worried about that. Would I like to play? Sure. I think I can shoot some good rounds.

"I don't know if I want to clutter up the field," he said. "Let me find out how much I clutter up this one."

Doral can use all the star power it can get, even if that means Nicklaus. The field appeared to be as strong as ever until five days ago, when Ernie Els (No. 2 in the world ranking) decided to play in Dubai. Then, Phil Mickelson (No. 3) withdrew because his wife is close to having their third child, and Vijay Singh (No. 4) backed out with a rib injury.

Also missing is Greg Norman, who failed to enter for the first time since 1992, because his kids are on spring break.

David Toms, at No. 6 in the world and coming off a runner-up finish to Tiger Woods in the Match Play Championship, is the highest-ranked player in the field.

DUBAI OPEN: Tiger Woods pulled out of the $1.2 million Dubai Desert Classic this week because of a possible U.S.-led attack of Iraq. His absence leaves Ernie Els with top billing.

Els has won four of the five tournaments he played this season. The South African is going for his third Dubai title, having won last year and in 1994. This time, he leads a 150-man field that includes six players who helped Europe defeat the United States in the Ryder Cup.

Other absentees from the European PGA event include former champion Colin Montgomerie of Scotland and Nick Faldo of England, both because of rising tension in the area.

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