KAANAPALI, Hawaii (AP) — His name is still engraved on a gold plate on locker No. 138 but for the first time in a dozen years, the King isn’t around.
Arnold Palmer is skipping the Champions Skins Game for the first time since 1997 when he was recovering from prostate cancer surgery. His absence ends an era in the all-star event he won three times in his 20 starts dating to 1988.
Palmer, who turned 79 in September, earned just one skin in the previous four years. However, he was always the fan favorite.
“He’s been a fixture,” Jack Nicklaus said. “I think they’ve tried to accommodate him every year, as Arnold’s gotten older. It’s just been more and more difficult for him. He finally said, ‘Hey, I’ve had enough.’ Probably right for him but it’s too bad.”
Making his 19th appearance, Nicklaus has the most Champions Skins Game seniority of this weekend’s elite eight, which includes six members of the World Golf Hall of Fame who have won a combined 43 majors.
“I look at the tournament poster and see the other seven guys and I think ‘How did I get my mug on that poster with those guys?”‘ said Jay Haas, the only player without a major championship. “They’re Hall of Fame players and it’s just exciting for me to be here and be among those guys. I just hope I can make the most of it.”
During the pro-am, Nicklaus looked relaxed in shorts and Golden Bear-logoed socks. He played about three times during the holidays, but doesn’t touch a club too often.
“That’s a lot for me. I don’t really play any golf,” he said. “My golf game? Who knows? It’s an absolute crap shoot.”
Nicklaus is a three-time winner and owns 10 records including most career skins (104) and career money ($2,430,000).
He is paired with Tom Watson in the two-day event that is being played in an alternate-shot, four-team format for the fourth straight year. The event will be televised Feb. 28 and March 1 on ESPN.
The 59-year-old Watson is playing in his first competitive event since August. He had left hip replacement surgery in October.
Watson said the team of Haas and Greg Norman are the favorites. Also entered are Ben Crenshaw-Fuzzy Zoeller and Gary Player-Bernhard Langer.
“I’m excited about it and to be paired with Gary Player, who was my golfing idol growing up, makes it even more special,” said Langer, who is coming off a three-win season where he captured both Champions Tour player of the year and rookie of the year honors.
The duo have combined for 231 victories worldwide.
The diminutive 73-year-old Player couldn’t explain his success in his illustrious career with nine major victories. He called it “God-loaned talent.”
“It’s an inner something and you just can’t explain,” he said. “I played with people who were much better than me from tee to green and yet I’ve beat them. Golf is a puzzle without an answer.”
Norman, Langer and Crenshaw are making their Champions Skins Game debuts. Crenshaw, a two-time Masters winner, was a last-minute replacement for co-defending champion Peter Jacobsen, who withdrew because of a left shoulder injury.
“I’m very happy to join them,” Crenshaw said. “I think the world of all of them. They’ve accomplished so much. To be with them is very special for me.”
Last year, Zoeller-Jacobsen dominated the second day, teaming for six skins and $320,000, all earned on the back nine.
Zoeller tapped in for par to take the final $100,000 skin on the first playoff hole. It was the 17th time in 21 events that extra holes were needed.
Conditions this weekend are expected to be breezy, which could challenge the players who haven’t played competitively in months. The threat of high winds closed schools for most of Hawaii on Friday with most government employees on Maui told to stay home.
But the weather held up well, where it was partly cloudy with temperatures in the low 80s with occasional strong winds, but nowhere near the 50 mph gusts that were predicted.
The tournament is being played at the Royal Kaanapali Course for the second year after six years at Wailea, located a half-hour drive down the stunning coastline. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., the par-71 layout stretches 6,700 yards and hosted the Champions Tour’s Kaanapali Classic for 14 years.
Kaanapali is where Nicklaus teamed with Palmer to win the 1964 Canada Cup, the precursor to the World Cup. Nicklaus also won the individual title.
The four teams will compete for a $770,000 purse with the first six skins worth $30,000, Nos. 7-12 $40,000, the next five $50,000 and No. 18 $100,000.
Each player will donate 10 percent of his winnings to charity.