By BOB HARIG
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 31, 2001
All four major championships no longer are part of his plans, and he might even skip this year's Masters. But Jack Nicklaus could not say no to the Verizon Classic.
Golf's all-time major championship winner committed Tuesday to play in Tampa's Senior PGA Tour event at the TPC of Tampa Bay.
"I'm looking forward to returning to Tampa," Nicklaus said in a statement. "As you know, I've previously won the golf tournament, and I have enjoyed playing in it every time I have had the opportunity. I like the golf course. It's one of the more challenging we play on the senior tour. Of course, the tournament is very well-organized, which is another reason I really do enjoy playing there."
Along with another commitment from Hale Irwin, the Feb. 16-18 tournament has 27 of the top 31 money-winners from the 2000 season.
"This is great news," tournament director Kris Kilgard said. "Jack likes this golf tournament, and so does his wife (Barbara). He loves this golf course. When I talked to his people last November or December, they said he wouldn't set his schedule until after he got back from Hawaii. He did it immediately, so this is great."
Nicklaus, who turned 61 on Jan. 21, finished second to Irwin on Sunday at the Senior Skins Game in Hawaii, a week after a lackluster opening to the season at the MasterCard Championship, where he tied for 27th, 21 shots behind winner Larry Nelson.
After playing in all four major championships in 2000 likely for the last time, Nicklaus said he would make a decision on the Masters based on his play this winter and spring.
"I thought my play in the Senior Skins Game was very encouraging," Nicklaus said. "I felt like I started to hit the ball more like Jack Nicklaus. I hope the Verizon Classic gives me the opportunity to gauge my game as I begin to work on my tournament schedule for the next few months."
In the past, Nicklaus has lauded the condition and playability of the TPC of Tampa Bay. Nicklaus won the 1996 tournament when it was the GTE Classic.
"That's one of the reasons why I play very little on the senior tour, because outside of the majors, most of them are fairly easy and fairly short, and 64s, 65s and 66s are the norm," Nicklaus said recently during a conference call. "That's not my cup of tea. I've always loved the tougher courses, and those that challenged me got me more excited. I never liked a putting contest."
Nicklaus will be joined by a who's who of senior stars, including defending champion Bruce Fleisher; last year's leading money winner, Nelson; Tom Watson; Gary Player; Lee Trevino; Chi Chi Rodriguez, and Lanny Wadkins.
Irwin was a surprise commitment because his daughter, Becky, is pregnant with his first grandchild and is due in mid February. Irwin had hinted he might not play any Florida events.
For ticket information, call (813) 265-4653.