GOLF SKINS GAME : Shut Out on Day 1, Nicklaus Hits Low

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first hole on the Stadium Course at PGA West is called Prelude, a 440-yard par-four with huge bunkers on the left and a very small green. And for Nick Faldo, Curtis Strange, Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus, their first shots Saturday in the first nine holes of the Skins Game seemed ominous.

Let's see, did Nicklaus yank or hook that first drive?

"No way I'm going to answer that," Strange said.

Nicklaus, trying to cut his drive, hooked it into the bushes. Strange, Faldo and Norman lined up in the middle. Strange won the first skin, but Faldo won the most, winning two skins worth $70,000. Strange finished next with two skins worth $65,000, and Norman, who played a role in five of the holes, won a $30,000 skin.

Nicklaus, playing in the Skins Game for the eighth year, was shut out and faces being blanked for the 18 holes first time since 1986.

"I can't ever recall ever playing a worse nine holes of golf, whether it was practice or playing--any time," Nicklaus said.

After Nicklaus' first tee shot, he seemed to hit into the gallery, the sand or the water the rest of the way. Even when he was in contention, he couldn't seem to get a break.

"I can't ever recall hitting that many bad shots, and it wasn't like I was hitting them one way," Nicklaus said. "I hit them dead left or dead right. I mixed it up real well."

So, after the round, he went straight to the practice range and said he thinks the problem was that he couldn't get his right arm out of the way.

"Too much tennis," he said. "I hit them pretty well on the range."

This is Faldo's first Skins Game. Last year he watched it on television.

He won his first skin for $15,000, battling Nicklaus on the 184-yard, par-three fourth hole. Nicklaus hit a seemingly perfect drive to six feet below the pin. Faldo's drive stuck 18 feet from the cup. But Faldo sank his "triple-breaker"--as he called it--putt for birdie, and Nicklaus' putt missed left.

But Faldo's biggest payment came on the 350-yard, par-four seventh hole. With $30,000 carrying over from the fifth and sixth holes, and an increase to $25,000 a hole on No. 7, the prize was $55,000.

Nicklaus and Strange drove into the water, with Faldo and Norman landing on the fairway. Norman, about 107 yards from the pin, choked down on a wedge and hit to within six feet of the pin. Faldo hit a short wedge to within eight feet of the cup.

Faldo sank his putt for birdie. But Norman's putt lipped the cup and came back at him.

"It did a good 360 (-degree turn)," Norman said. "Curtis is right--it is easier when you putt first."

Faldo putted first on both holes he won.

"The other guys had a chance, but they both missed," Faldo said. "You feel fortunate when they could have tied you. It's nice to get in there and then hold your breath whenever they putt."

Strange sank a 12-foot putt on the first hole to earn his first skin and $15,000.

"With that first skin out of the way, the pressure is somewhat off," said Strange, who seemed to be the liveliest of the group. "With Fuzzy (Zoeller) and Lee (Trevino) not here, it probably seemed more quiet out there."

Strange had his best effort on the 450-yard, par-four ninth hole when he sank a four-foot putt for birdie and $50,000, which included a carryover from No. 8.

Norman took advantage of the carryover on the 446-yard, par-four third hole. His drive flew left past the bunkers, then hit a mound and kicked right to a raised lie about 160 yards out. He hit a seven-iron to the green about 45 feet from the pin. Then he sank his putt for a birdie.

This is the first time this group has played together, and Strange thought they had a good time.

"You know down deep it's an event made for TV, but you still try hard," Strange said. "We all know each other well, and I think we quipped enough between the four of us."

Or at least among the three of them.

"I can tell you this much, I will not play quite that badly tomorrow," Nicklaus said.

Today's prize money on the remaining holes is $285,000. Holes 10-12 are worth $25,000 each and the remaining six worth $35,000.

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