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Nicklaus returning to regular action

Jack Nicklaus once again has committed to The ACE Group Classic.

Unlike a year ago, however, Nicklaus' chances of actually playing are much greater.

Nicklaus, 63, has been bothered by back pain the last couple of years. He withdrew the week of the 2002 ACE Group Classic for the same reason, then completed only one Champions Tour event the entire year.

But Nicklaus competed in both the ConAgra Foods Senior Skins Game and the MasterCard Championship in Hawaii the last two weeks. On Sunday, he fired a 66 to jump from 25th to a tie for 11th at the MasterCard. He said on television following the round that he would play in Naples, then confirmed it through the tour on Monday.

The 2003 ACE Group Classic will be held Feb. 10-16 at The Club at TwinEagles in North Naples.

"It's a little different reaction this year because a year ago, he was 20 pounds heavier and he had not just recently shot a 66 in competition," ACE Group Classic tournament director Bob Burris said. "I saw the interview with Jack. It sounds to me like he thinks he can win. That's nice to see, nice to hear that his body is in great shape. A guy 63 years old shooting a 66 in competition is pretty impressive to me.

"Obviously, we're just thrilled and the phones have just been ringing off the hook. It definitely has moved the meter."

Burris admitted he thought that Nicklaus, who has never competed in Naples' Champions Tour event, would play this year, but was not counting on it. Last year, Nicklaus said playing at TwinEagles, which he co-designed with his son Jack II, was one reason for playing in The ACE.

Nicklaus and his son Gary won the 1999 Office Depot Father/Son Challenge on the course in a playoff over Raymond and Robert Floyd.

"I have not said a word about it," Burris said of Nicklaus playing this year. "I privately had a lot of optimism because I knew with his strong relationship with the Bonita Bay Group (the developer of TwinEagles) that if he could, he would."

"I just felt that there was a good chance. I was just crossing my fingers. I wasn't holding my breath."

Nicklaus tops a field that has 29 of the top 31 money-winners from 2002, including defending champion Hale Irwin, 2002 runner-up Tom Watson, Bruce Fleisher, Allen Doyle and Gil Morgan among others.

Tournament week starts with a pro-am on Monday, Feb. 10.

Tuesday features a closest-to- the-pin contest at 1 p.m., followed by a clinic featuring top instructor Dr. Jim Suttie and tour players Billy Kratzert, Andy North and Gary Koch, plus another performance by trick-shot artist Chuck "The Hitman" Hiter afterward.

Pro-ams are Wednesday and Thursday, with tournament play running from Friday through Sunday and televised by The Golf Channel.


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