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GOLF / SKINS GAME AT PALM DESERT : Couples Gets What Palmer Misses

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was only an eight-foot putt with a little right-to-left break on it.

It was the kind of putt Arnold Palmer used to make routinely in his prime, but the kind of putt he started missing too many times as the years rolled along.

If he makes it, he’s $60,000 richer, but more important, he would have accomplished his goal of winning something during the first day of the Skins Game at Bighorn Golf Club.

Palmer made a weak stroke, the ball broke under the hole, Palmer moaned, the crowd groaned and the moment even moved announcer Vin Scully to utter--off the air--"damn it.”

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When the first nine holes had been completed Saturday, all Palmer had to show for it were memories of what could have been on the eighth hole, memories of a near-eagle on the first hole and of Fred Couples snatching a certain skin away from him with a 30-foot putt on the seventh hole.

Couples, meanwhile, made the most of the few good shots he hit.

Despite spraying shots all over the brush and rocks that surround the hilly fairways at Bighorn, Couples birdied the first and ninth holes and eagled the sixth. He wound up winning two holes that were worth six skins and $150,000.

Two-time defending champion Payne Stewart birdied the second and third holes and won three skins worth $60,000.

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Paul Azinger, who nearly had to withdraw because of pain in his back, was blanked, as was Palmer.

The four players will tee it up again this morning for the final nine holes. There is still $330,000 left to be won, but Palmer can’t see himself having any better chance to win a skin than he did Saturday.

Palmer had hit a four-iron to the 205-yard eighth hole, and his ball had come off of a slope and rolled to within eight feet of the cup.

He was the only one left with a chance to birdie the hole, which was worth two skins and $60,000.

“I just misread it,” Palmer said. “I should have lagged the putt and let it break into the hole, but I tried to jam it in. I didn’t see that much break in it.”

On the previous hole, a 392-yard par four, Palmer faced a 25-foot birdie putt and it appeared he was going to be able to two-putt it to win a $30,000 skin. But before he had a chance to try it, Couples made a 30-foot putt for par.

“I don’t know what Freddy had against me,” Palmer said.

Said Couples: “I don’t know how that putt went in. It was totally luck. I wasn’t playing well enough to make that putt.”

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Palmer’s putt was wide right.

“I can’t complain about the way I was playing,” Palmer said. “I just didn’t make the putts I needed to make. I hit a lot of good shots, but not enough of them. I’m not sure I’m going to have that many chances again.”

Palmer had a feeling it might be his day on the first hole, a 503-yard par five, when he almost reached the green in two and barely missed an eagle chip from 40 feet.

“I thought it was in the hole as soon as I hit it,” Palmer said.

Palmer birdied the hole, but so did Couples, who had reached the green in two with a five-iron.

Stewart birdied the 367-yard second hole, a two-skin hole worth $40,000, and the 501-yard third hole, which was worth a $20,000 skin.

Couples won his first hole when he reached the 505-yard sixth hole in two and made a 15-foot eagle putt. It was a three-skin hole worth $60,000.

Couples added another $90,000 with a five-foot birdie putt at the 459-yard ninth hole.

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“It feels nice to win a lot of money the first day,” Couples said, “but I know what can happen the second day. Last year I was the big winner the first day, and even had an eagle the second day, but Payne is the one who made the big putt with all the money on the line.”


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