Nicklaus, Watson Win on Royal Kaanapali’s 17th

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While the month of January saw four professional golf events held here in Hawaii, only two were held on Maui, and both on the West side: the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, and the Kaanapali Champions Skins Game. While the Kapalua event was the eye of the storm, in terms of its sheer star power and money, the Kaanapali Champions Skins Game actually drew larger crowds, and had a far more dramatic and sentimental climax than the former, more hyped event up the road.

It was a steamy Sunday at the Royal Kaanapali Golf Course when the alternate-shot event began its final nine holes. There was an ebb and flow all day as cloud cover rolled in and the eight-man field of four two-man teams made its way to the 17th hole, where five skins and $250,000 had carried over. The 17th, a 155-yard par three, is notorious for being pivotal. It would live up to its name again that late-January day.

Wind is common here, but that day there was a stiff breeze coming in from the left. You might’ve thought it was a Kona, as the prevailing trade wind usually hurts from the right, making the pond on the left loom even larger . The sky was dark as a front had moved in. ESPN was broadcasting the event live, and Billy Ray Brown was the on-course commentator. He noticed the gallery was cheering on Jack.

“I saw the guys try to hit 7-irons and they were hitting the ball,  they were spinning it and they were going all over the place,” Jack Nicklaus said.

Indeed they were. Playing from tees measuring only 136-yards to the hole this day, you’d think the game’s legends would be all over the pin, but they weren’t. No one was able to get the ball close. Now it was time for Jack to tee it up. He was hitting last.

“So I said, `I’m going to take my 6-iron, choke it down a couple inches and just pick it, and try to make sure I didn’t put any spin on the ball.’ Which is what I did. It turned out to be a pretty darn good shot.”

“Sometimes you have to go back and look in your memory bank and see if you can find something,” the Golden Bear noted.

Well he did. The shot wavered in the sky as the gusty breezes tried to wreak havoc with it, but the ball almost had purpose as it dropped onto the green 12 feet below the hole.

The gallery went wild. They had been cheering Jack and Maui, at the urging of a local golf show’s host and sidekick, who are affiliated with the Maui Golf Review. (As ‘working media’, the two were unwittingly breaking a cardinal rule: to report, not participate.) Nonetheless, the cheers would’ve come on their own, as Nicklaus is probably the most beloved player of all in the hearts of isle golfers.

As the groups arrived at the green and everyone hushed up while Watson and Nicklaus stalk the big putt. Moments later, Watson rolled it in.

“We were just dodging bullets out there,” Tom Watson said afterwards. “When Jack hit that shot at 17, I knew it was time to convert.”

With that 6-iron tee shot and 12-foot putt for birdie on 17, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson successfully defended their title. They won seven skins and $310,000 in cash to eclipse Mark O’Meara and Bernhard Langer by a mere $10,000.

Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson's cash winnings after winning on No. 17.

“Skins game is a funny  game,” said Nicklaus, an 18-time major winner and five-time champion in  Champions Skins. “After birdieing the second hole yesterday, we were  hanging in there. We really didn’t do much. Today we were just sort of  hanging around, not competing. All of sudden, 17, boom. That’s what the  game is. I’m glad I picked the right hole to make the right shot and I’m  glad Tom picked the right hole to make the right putt.”

Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus receive leis on 17th green.

O’Meara  and Langer had seven skins. Langer made a 7-footer for birdie on the  11th hole worth $80,000 and O’Meara tapped in for par on the second  playoff hole for the final $100,000.

Fred Couples and Nick Price claimed $80,000, matching Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller.

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