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Jack has Georgia on his mind

Jack Nicklaus says he's getting ''better and better,'' which may mean a return to Augusta National for the Masters.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2003

LUTZ -- Jack Nicklaus hit rock bottom at a scramble in December when his amateur playing partners consistently outdrove him.

"It was horrible," Nicklaus said.

The event, which preceded a father-son tournament, required the use of at least two tee shots from each of Nicklaus' teammates. As the Golden Bear remembers it, the amateurs stole the show.

"We got to the tournament and I said to (son) Jackie, 'Do you have to use me twice during the round?' " Nicklaus said.

Thanks to a lingering back injury, Nicklaus, winner of 18 majors, entered three tournaments in 2002. His game was so off-key he shot pedestrianlike rounds ranging from 75-85 and all but gave up on 2003, replacing tournaments on his calendar with nongolf events.

"I committed to some stuff I can't believe I committed to," Nicklaus said. "I have a couple things I scheduled six months ago that have put me in an awkward position."

That's because Nicklaus, 63, is beginning to show flashes of his former self. Anti-inflammatory medication has helped his back, and his game. Earlier this year, he shot 66 at an event in Hawaii and had another round of 4 under. Nicklaus shot 69 in the final round Sunday at the Verizon Classic to finish tied for 15th at 2 over.

"I've just gotten better and better and better," he said.

His pairing with Tom Watson and Bobby Wadkins had a larger gallery than that of the leaders, and Nicklaus did not disappoint. On the 391-yard par-4 eighth, he holed a 5-iron out of the rough from 168 yards with a slight breeze in his face for eagle.

"I tried to pick it, which I did," Nicklaus said. "And I hit it, obviously, the way I wanted to."

Nicklaus moved to 5 under for the round and 1 under for the tournament after making birdie at the 425-yard par-4 15th. But he bogeyed the final three holes, and on another hit a 4-iron all of 100 yards.

"I started to hit a few good shots and all of sudden I hit a few good putts and said, 'Good gracious, I'm under par,' " Nicklaus said. "I played very well through about 15, then I finished like a choking dog. And I had no reason to choke. It was ridiculous. I was sitting there just playing a good round of golf, and I haven't played many good rounds of golf lately. I'm trying to learn how to play good golf again, and I couldn't finish the round. ... Those things happen and those are the things you learn from."

Now feeling healthy and playing better than he has in more than a year, the fire is back.

"I'm always pretty hard on myself," Nicklaus said, "but that's how I think I get better. It wasn't me against the field. It was me against myself. And that's who I'm playing against right now. I'm doing better but I'm not quite there yet. ... I'm not hurting at all when I'm playing and that's terrific. I'm really enjoying that part of it."

Nicklaus will decide by Friday whether to play in the PGA's Ford Championship at Doral in Miami, which is in two weeks. He has not committed to play in the Masters, where he has won six times, but if he plays Doral there's a good bet he'll be in Augusta.

"I probably need to play a regular tour event if I'm thinking about going to Augusta," Nicklaus said. "I'm not going to be (at the Masters) just to go out and shoot some horrible round."

A trip to Augusta would cap a remarkable turnaround from where he was three months ago. Nicklaus might have other commitments scheduled this spring, but one can bet he left a certain week open in April -- just in case.

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