POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 30, 2011
KAANAPALI, Maui » Opening day of the Kaanapali Champions Skins Game was a ride on the roller-coaster world of skins golf, with Maui's greatest assets screaming in the background.
Eight of the game's greatest golfers, playing in all but perfect weather yesterday, soared early, plateaued into pars, then broke out a bunch of birdies to warm up for today's final nine holes.
Bernhard Langer and Mark O'Meara, the only "rookie" in this event, take a $40,000 advantage into it. They won four skins on the sixth hole of Royal Kaanapali's upper nine yesterday when Langer's 10-foot birdie putt complemented O'Meara's sweet approach shot for a $120,000 payoff.
Fuzzy Zoeller and Ben Crenshaw, who won here two years ago, are second. They scored $80,000 on Zoeller's curling 20-foot birdie putt at No. 8.
Defending champions and elder statesmen Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson are third with $60,000. Nicklaus, 71, nearly holed out with a 5-iron from the second fairway. O'Meara called it the shot of the day and Watson, 61, converted the 3-footer for birdie and the first two skins.
Nicklaus and Watson have teamed every year since the game went to this format in 2006. They have won twice and collected 27 of their 37 skins on the front nine. Last year they won nine of the first 10 skins.
After two holes yesterday, with about 2,500 spectators watching, it looked like the roller coaster might not come back to earth. Crenshaw, arguably the best putter on the planet, opened the day by draining the first putt, from 25 feet.
Fred Couples covered that birdie from 4 feet. But he and Nick Price, the youngest team in the alternate-shot format, are the only ones who go into the final nine with no money.
That can be traced to an ugly three-putt par that halved the par-5 third. It was the first time since the team format started that the hole was halved with par. It was also the first time more than two teams have cashed in the first day.
The par-5 power outage started a slide that saw three straight holes halved with par.
Watson had to chip in for par on the fourth, and Crenshaw halved it with a 9-foot putt. Price missed a 10-footer worth $90,000 on the next hole.
O'Meara and Langer blamed the slump on skins' penchant for robbing golfers of their rhythm.
"It is awkward, and you get a little stiff," said Langer, going after an unprecedented fourth straight player of the year honor this season. "You're standing around a lot more."
O'Meara's evidence was stark: He hit just four iron shots all day. Langer's first putt didn't come until the round was nearly an hour old.
But the elite eight found their mojo again.
Langer drained a 10-foot birdie putt on the sixth that no one could match.
Zoeller's errant approach shot mysteriously found its way into someone's sandals on the next hole, while O'Meara and Couples were matching birdies.
Then, from 20 feet on the eighth green, Zoeller watched with the fascination of a 4-year-old as his birdie putt dropped in the heart of the hole. He looked at Crenshaw and raised his arms in celebration.
"All I can tell you is that I put my partner in places that I wouldn't even put a lost dog," Zoeller said. "But we did scratch out one hole where we played pretty well — he hit a nice little shot in there, and I putted it in."
Price couldn't cover it and everyone missed on the final hole to leave $510,000 for today. The first hole is worth $80,000 and the last will be worth whatever cash has carried over plus another $100,000.
Play begins at 2 p.m. on the course's lower nine holes. This game has gone extra holes all but four years.