LA QUINTA — In what amounted to a battle of body parts, what can you say about Fuzzy Zoeller and Jack Nicklaus? Their backs, maybe?
The two golfers with the worst backs had the best paydays Saturday on the first nine holes of the $450,000 Skins Game.
Zoeller, whose sore back hurts only when he plays golf, and Nicklaus, whose back hurts only when he walks, won $70,000 apiece.
There were five skins on Day 1, and Zoeller and Nicklaus won four of them. Lee Trevino won one $25,000 skin, and Arnold Palmer was shut out on a cool, clear, sunny afternoon at the TPC Stadium Golf Course at PGA West.
Zoeller won the richest skin (and his only one), a three-hole carryover worth $70,000, when he sank a four-foot birdie putt on the seventh hole. He got that close to the hole by sending a ball out of the rough from 65 feet away with a sand wedge.
"It went like I knew what I was doing," said Zoeller, who claimed he didn't know how much the skin was worth until after he sank his putt.
Nicklaus played as though he knew something, too, and right from the beginning.
He started with a 25-foot birdie on the first hole and won a $15,000 skin, which broke a long dry spell for him. Nicklaus had won only one skin in his last 35 holes.
"When that was over, I was totally relaxed from then on," Nicklaus said. "I don't think I've played the worst golf on those 35 holes either. But it was kind of nice to get that monkey off my back."
It is this same back, Nicklaus said, that is giving him pain. A nerve root problem makes walking, especially at an angle, difficult for him.
"It causes the outside of my left leg and ankle to go kind of dead," he said.
In any event, Nicklaus came right back with a birdie on No. 2, but he halved the hole with Zoeller, who also birdied it. Nicklaus' second shot rolled within two feet of the cup.
"Are you mad or broke?" Trevino asked.
"Both," Nicklaus said.
He got richer on the third hole with a third consecutive birdie, a seven-footer, that was worth $30,000 on a carryover.
No one won No. 4 or No. 5, on which both Nicklaus and Trevino drove into water. Trevino's explanation? "I was chasing the ball I hit in there last year."
Trevino's comments were limited to the golf course. He skipped his interview session afterward, right after he missed a five-footer on No. 9 that allowed Nicklaus to win his third skin, this one worth $25,000.
The hole before, however, Trevino rolled a birdie into the cup for his $25,000 skin, which wouldn't have happened if Palmer had not sent a five-footer wide.
Palmer had a tough day, climaxed on No. 7 when he put two golf balls into the water, despite some coaching by Trevino.
"All right, Arnie," Trevino said as Palmer hit again after his first shot went into the water.
"Go! Go! Go! Splash!" Trevino said.
After the round, Palmer indicated that he may be feeling the pressure. "I've certainly started thinking about it," he said. "It would have been nice to get one (skin) the first day and then relax a little bit."
No one was more relaxed than Zoeller, who is already thinking ahead to the $285,000 in skins waiting to be won today when the second nine holes are played.
Looking for a favorite? Zoeller said you may not have to look further than him.
"I think my chances are pretty good," he said. "I'm doing well. I'm putting well and my drives are crisp."
Nicklaus said he also cannot be overlooked, and Zoeller agreed.
"I played pretty well," he said. "I see no reason why I can't play pretty well tomorrow."
There is one part of Nicklaus' game that makes Zoeller believe him. "That darned Nicklaus--he played better today than he has all year," Zoeller said. "He made a lot of good putts and that's something he hasn't been doing."
Zoeller is playing in his third Skins Game, which has been pretty good to him. He has played 27 holes and won $690,000. Zoeller said he uses a simple philosophy for competing in the Skins.
"I'm just playing to stay in the game," he said. "You just want to have a chance to win. You always want to give yourself a chance to choke. That's all I ask. I don't care if I come in with goose eggs."