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Former champion returns to Tucson

Even in a tournament that bills itself as a showcase for first-time winners, Jim Carter's status is unique.

He's a Tucson Open champion who never had a title defense -- until now.

``I feel like I missed out on a lot last year when the tour changed the schedule,'' said Carter, who won the event in 2000 but then played in the Mercedes Championships last year because the PGA Tour moved Tucson from its usual late-February slot to mid-January.

He wasn't slumming, of course. The Mercedes is open only to champions from the previous year.

``It was great,'' Carter said. ``You know, knowing that you are a tour winner and you're in the tournament of champions. Just a nice feeling, great tournament. They really take good care of you, spoil you. I mean, gosh, you're in Hawaii. You're driving a Mercedes. It's good. Life is good.''

He was bothered by the wind the first day and shot a 7-over 80, but recovered with three consecutive 72s.

At the same time at Tucson National, Garrett Willis opened with a 1-under 71 and then shot 69-64-69 to beat Kevin Sutherland by a stroke to collect his first title in his first PGA Tour start.

Willis became the 11th player to win his initial championship in Tucson.

Carter, who parlayed his $540,000 check in Tucson into winnings of $964,346 two years ago, earned $345,926 in 2001 after making the cut 23 times but never finishing higher than a tie for 22nd.

This year, he has pocketed $68,641 in five events to rank 98th, and he's back on the 7,109-yard National course looking for a fresh start.

Carter is the career money leader in the event, sponsored by Touchstone Energy, with $618,263 in 11 starts.

``I do feel like I'm defending here,'' Carter said. ``Not to take anything away from Garrett. It's good to be back, and I have good memories here.''

There are notables in the field -- 1999 winner Gabriel Hjertstedt, 1994 champion Andrew Magee and Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, who joined the tour in 2000 after winning seven international titles.

But the biggest names will be marching along with the gallery as Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, a four-time Tucson winner, will be following their sons.

Gary Nicklaus had a successful year on the tour two years ago, but had to attend qualifying school after finishing 169th in 2001. He tied for 13th to retain his card.

Andy Miller won a qualifying tournament to get into the Tucson field.


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