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LUTZ -- Jack is back, and there's a big reason why: the TPC of Tampa Bay.
Yes, Jack Nicklaus, after a year of virtual inactivity due to a bad back, is hoping to play more this year, and is looking for opportunities to get his game in shape.
But it's unlikely he'd be here for the Verizon Classic if it weren't for the course, one of his favorites on the Champions Tour. Nicklaus is making his sixth appearance in the tournament, which he won in 1996.
"I like the golf course," Nicklaus said Thursday before he played in the pro-am. "I think it's a golfer's golf course. You've got to play some pretty good golf here. I enjoy that.
"When we first started playing here (1992), it was one of the few courses on the senior tour that you had to play golf. We've got more good courses now. But this is a nice course, and it was one of the first ones."
The course has received similar reviews from other players.
"It's in great shape, one of the best we play," said Bob Gilder, who won the 2001 Verizon Classic. "It's in the best shape I've seen it."
MASTERS BOUND?: Nicklaus remains undecided about whether he will play in the Masters for the 43rd time. After playing in the tournament 40 straight times, Nicklaus missed it in two of the past four years.
And though the tournament has set an age limit for past champions, he said that will not alter his decision. The Masters changed its lifetime exemption last year; past winners will be able to play through their 65th birthday.
"I'm supposedly eligible for three more years, according to their new rules," he said. "I didn't realize that lifetime meant 65, I didn't realize that was the end of your life. That has nothing to do with it. If I can play golf, I'll play. If I can't play golf, I'm not going to play."
Nicklaus said he might play the Doral event on the PGA Tour in two weeks as preparation just in case.
"I'm considering it," he said. "I don't want to clutter up the field, but I got a nice letter from them asking me to play. If I'm going to play Augusta, I probably have to play a tournament on the regular tour."
BACK FROM THE BOOTH: Gary McCord, the CBS analyst and part-time Champions Tour player, is playing in his first event of the year this week after doing four PGA Tour events for the network.
"I do this every year, I come out of hibernation," he said.
That's why McCord doesn't expect much. But upon further reflection, he realized he has done quite well in his early season outings.
Three years ago, McCord began the season with a tie for second and last year his first tournament came in Mexico, where he tied for second.
"I don't know what it is," said McCord, who has two Champions Tour victories. "It's probably better if I don't play a lot, because the demons don't come back. I've had pretty good success, but I don't know how."
ARNIE IS AILING: Arnold Palmer was unable to play his pro-am round due to a bad back. He apparently suffered a minor injury this week. He tried to warm up on the driving range, but was in too much pain to proceed. Palm Harbor's Jay Overton, one of the alternates for the tournament, took his spot in the pro-am. If Palmer can't play today, Ted Goin will take his spot in the field.
PRO-AM: Tom Wargo's pro-am team had the winning score, 21-under-par 51. Wargo's amateur partners were Damon Hyde, Micky Carney, Jody Reed and Bill Weltlin.