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Nicklaus returns to action at the Tradition

The back pain that kept Jack Nicklaus out of the Masters has subsided, thanks to some electronic stimulus, and he plans to play in this week's Countrywide Tradition.

``I'm feeling better than I have in a long time,'' he said.

The first major of the Senior PGA Tour season has moved to the Superstition Mountain Golf & Country Club on the extreme eastern outskirts of the Phoenix area.

For its first 13 years, the tournament was played at Scottsdale's Desert Mountain course, where Nicklaus won the event four times, most recently in 1996. He designed both courses.

The Prospector course, among scattered Sahuaro cactus and mesquite trees in the shadow of barren Superstition Mountain, opened in 1998.

The 72-hole event begins Thursday, and the key to victory will be putting on the exceedingly quick greens.

``These greens are every bit as fast as Augusta's, if not faster,'' Nicklaus said. ``Of course, I'm not speaking from experience. I didn't play there.''

A year of constant back pain eroded Nicklaus' spirits as well as his game, and the 62-year-old golfing great decided not to play in the Masters, a tournament he has won a record six times.

``The way my golf game has been the last year, I knew I wasn't capable of playing decently,'' he said. ``I'm sure I could have done what a lot of others did, but I can't imagine wanting to do that.''

He is not sure if he will play the Masters again.

``If I'm well enough to play and I think I can play well enough to somewhat compete, then I'll go back and play,'' he said. ``But if I can't, I won't.''

The pain began a year ago at the Legends of Golf tournament.

``I went out and hit bunker shots for about an hour, and I woke up with it the next day,''' Nicklaus said. ``It hasn't stopped hurting since then.''

Last Saturday, the pain was so great he felt there was no way he could play. An acquaintance last year had given Nicklaus a palm-size device not yet approved for sale in the United States that stimulates muscles electronically.

He had used it on parts of his back, but last Friday decided to try it on his abdominal muscles. He did it again Sunday morning, and felt considerable relief.

``I went to the golf course and I never hurt a shot,'' Nicklaus said. ''`That's the first time I haven't hurt a shot in seven or eight months, so I was like a kid in a candy store. I told Barbara grab your hat, pack your bags, leave your worries on the doorstep -- whatever that song is -- because we're going to go play golf.''

Nicklaus and his wife went to Las Vegas, where he opened a course and played 18 holes on Monday. He followed with practice rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday at Superstition Mountain.

``I don't consider myself being a contender,'' he said. ``Good gracious, the last tournament I played was last July.''

But he is pleased to be playing, and had hit the ball well through his practice rounds, though his putting wasn't great.

He believes that the thousands of golf swings he has taken have led to his back woes, just as the constant gripping of the clubs has filled his fingers with arthritis.

Hip replacement surgery three years ago aggravated the back problem, and a strict exercise regimen had only helped slightly.

``It's hell to get old, guys,'' he said, ``but it's all part of the process, and I have no regrets. I've had a wonderful run.''

While he would miss tournament golf, he most wants to be able to keep playing recreationally, with his sons and grandchildren.

``I love to play tournament golf, but I don't need to,'' he said. ``I just don't want to hurt all the time.''

Nicklaus is the biggest name of a field that includes many of the greats of the PGA Tour's past.

Tom Weiskopf, who lives in Scottsdale, was a last-minute entry, his first tournament since the MasterCard Championship at the start of the 2000 season.

Nicklaus played with Tom Watson on Wednesday. The ``youngsters'' in their first Tradition include Senior tour rookies Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller.

The defending champion is Doug Tewell, who is coming off a victory April 7 at the Legends of Golf.

Other contenders figure to be Hale Irwin and Tom Kite, who both have won two seniors events this year. Irwin also won the Senior Skins Game.


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