Jack Nicklaus doesn’t play in a lot of golf tournaments these days, but he draws a big following when he does.
That’s the case this weekend as Nicklaus and Gary Player are teaming up to compete in the Champions Tour’s Big Cedar Lodge Legends of Golf tournament, which ends Sunday at the Top of the Rock course. Nicklaus, 74, and Player, 78, had fans of all ages cheering for them and seeking autographs Friday and Saturday as they competed in the Legends Division for golfers 65 and over.
Nicklaus and Player stand at 4-under 121 after playing one round on both the par-54 Top of the Rock and the par-71 Buffalo Ridge courses the first two days. They are 3 shots behind two teams. Former Kansas State golfer Jim Colbert and Jim Thorpe are tied for the lead with Bruce Fleisher and Larry Nelson at 7-under 118.
“It’s good fun,” Nicklaus said. “Always enjoy playing with Gary.”
Nicklaus credited Player with making some key putts to keep them in contention.
“Well, I’d say Gary played very well,” Nicklaus said. “I was all right the front nine. It was all Gary the back nine, thank goodness, because I wasn’t very good.”
The tournament moved to the Ozarks from Savannah, Ga., this year, and Nicklaus and Player decided to play after being asked to help the inaugural event by PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. Nicklaus also said that he was influenced to come by the fact that Bass Pro Shops founder and Big Cedar Lodge owner Johnny Morris has done a lot to support things Nicklaus has been involved with. Nicklaus designed the Top of the Rock par-3 course that is being used in the tournament, including for today’s final round.
And, Nicklaus said, he had one more reason for coming: “We want to win.”
That, of course, is something Nicklaus knows a lot about. He won 73 PGA Tour events in his career, including a record 18 major championships, and added 10 wins after joining the Champions Tour. His last win came in the 1996 GTE Suncoast Classic.
Player, who is from Johannesburg, South Africa, also had a successful career, gaining 165 career wins worldwide, including 24 PGA Tour events and 19 Champions Tour tournaments. He’s the owner of nine major titles.
Fans often marvel at the good shape Player is in.
“Age is just a concept that man has invented,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, if I don’t keep busy — and I’m extremely busy in my life now designing golf courses, working on my ranch, doing a lot of company days and playing the occasional tournament — I would just lie down and die. I’ve got to keep moving and exercising.”
Nicklaus spends more time now on design work, and he is the host of the PGA Tour’s Memorial Tournament, which was held last weekend in Columbus, Ohio.
Before the Memorial, Nicklaus said he had gotten a call from Tiger Woods, who had to skip the tournament after having back surgery March 31.
Nicklaus said that as long as Woods recovers from the surgery and stays healthy, he thinks Woods can still break his record of 18 major championships.
“I think his health is something that he thinks he’s doing very well with,” Nicklaus said. “If he’s healthy, I think Tiger’s got 10 plus years to play top‑quality tournament golf.
“And certainly — and I’ve said many times — he’s got a little over 40 tournaments to play the major championships. He’s only got to win five to pass my record. As good a player as he is, I don’t think that should be a big deal.”
Nicklaus has noticed that TV ratings for golf are down with Woods on the sidelines. But Nicklaus is glad to notice that as the economy continues to improve, more people appear to be playing the game again.
“I think that state of tournament golf is really, really healthy,” Nicklaus said.
“People are starting to play more rounds. They’re spending more money at a lot of the clubs. The clubs are not struggling like they were three, four years ago, so I think we’ve made a turnaround. I think we’re headed in the right direction. We just went through a bad time. The whole United States and the world went through a bad time. And hopefully we’re on the other side of it.”
While Nicklaus and the fans came to the Ozarks to have a good time this week, many are also remembering Payne Stewart, a PGA Tour player from Springfield who won three major championships before being killed in a 1999 plane crash.
“I think Payne was a very talented player,” Nicklaus recalled. And my main memories of Payne is always sort of fun loving, joking, a little bit of a wiseguy at times. That was his way of having some fun.”
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Watson, Pernice in hunt
Tom Watson and Tom Pernice Jr. of Kansas City are both in the hunt with their partners for the Champions Division title for players under age 65 at the Big Cedar Lodge Legends of Golf.
Watson and partner Andy North shot 6-under 65 on Saturday at the par-71 Buffalo Ridge course, while Pernice and Bob Tway shot 64.
Both of those teams are at 11-under 114 after two rounds.
Jay Haas and Peter Jacobsen are in the lead at 15-under 110 after shooting 48 on the par-54 Top of the Rock course, the first course with all par-3 holes to be used in an official PGA Tour event.
| Tom Smith, email@example.com