The 63-year-old Nicklaus, winner of 18 professional majors, believes he can still win since his sore back is better thanks to a new nutritional program that has helped him drop 20 pounds.
Two weeks ago, Nicklaus tied for 11th at the MasterCard Championship in Hawaii following a final round 66. He tees off again Friday in the $1.6 million ACE Group Classic at The Club at TwinEagles.
``I'm feeling better,'' Nicklaus said. ``I'm not good yet. I am greatly, greatly improved, and that's allowed me to play.''
He co-designed the course he'll play on Friday with his son, Jack II. But he hasn't played it since one of his last victories in a golf tournament, the 1999 Father/Son Challenge, an unofficial Champions Tour event he won with his son, Gary.
Nicklaus won the Hyundai Team Matches with Tom Watson in 1999 and 2000, but the last time he won a regular full-field tournament was the 1996 Tradition.
Nicklaus played in two events last year, withdrawing from the Senior PGA Championship after two rounds. He finished 69th at The Tradition.
Meanwhile, defending champion Hale Irwin will try to start out like he did a year ago, with a victory at The ACE. That turned out to be a pretty good indicator for his year. He won three more times and set a record with $3 million in earnings.
``Having an early season win is, I don't want to say critical to having a successful year, but it really helps out,'' Irwin said. ``It builds a very solid foundation that you can play the rest of the year knowing that you've got a jump start on most of the field.''
The field at The ACE also features Bruce Fleisher, Allen Doyle, two-time Naples winner Gil Morgan, Dana Quigley and Dave Barr.
Ireland's Des Smyth, the medalist at the Champions Tour Q-School, will make his tour debut.
Fuzzy Zoeller also is in the field. Zoeller, who won a major in his first season on the tour last year, was disqualified from last week's Royal Caribbean Golf Classic on Key Biscayne.
Zoeller, who plays out of Naples National Golf Club, was disqualified after the first round when he went onto the course to hit a few golf balls for a television promotion set up through the tour. Rules forbid golfers from practicing on the course between rounds. Many players were upset with the ruling and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem contacted Zoeller to apologize Monday.
The 54-hole tournament goes through Sunday, and the winner will receive $240,000.
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