MIAMI -- Sweat was streaming down Jack Nicklaus' face even before he got to the first tee. He was met by more than 100 people, an unusually large gallery considering this was only a pro-am round, and the midday heat was stifling.
Nicklaus sightings are rare on the PGA Tour.
The Ford Championship at Doral is only his second regular tour event in the last 22 months, but the 63-year-old Golden Bear has his reasons for playing.
His health is better than it has been in two years, and Nicklaus is looking trim. As much as anything, though, the Masters is on his mind.
"If I'm thinking about Augusta, or the Memorial Tournament, or if I'm thinking about anything, why wait until I can see if I can play golf again?" Nicklaus said after completing a practice round during which temperatures reached the mid-80s.
A year ago, Nicklaus had to skip the Masters for only the second time since 1959 because of back problems. His days are numbered, anyway, because of the new policy that cuts off participation for former champions after age 65.
Nicklaus said he has not made up his mind about Augusta, although signs point to him playing in his 44th Masters.
He is realistic about his game - this week at Doral, next month at the Masters.
"What difference does it make? I'm not going to compete, anyway," he said. "Whether I'm going to wave to people as I run by? That's fine. I'm not too worried about that. Would I like to play? Sure. I think I can shoot some good rounds.
"I don't know if I want to clutter up the field," he said. "Let me find out how much I clutter up this one."
Doral can use all the star power it can get, even if that means Nicklaus.
The field appeared to be as strong as ever until five days ago, when Ernie Els (No. 2 in the world ranking) decided to play in Dubai. Then, Phil Mickelson (No. 3) withdrew because his wife is close to having their third child, and Vijay Singh (No. 4) backed out with a rib injury.
Also missing is Greg Norman, who failed to enter for the first time since 1992, because his kids are on spring break.
The quality of play doesn't figure to suffer.
Mike Weir won twice in California and captured the West Coast Swing. David Toms is coming off a runner-up finish to Tiger Woods in the Match Play Championship.
Toms, at No. 6, is the highest-ranked player in the field for the first time since ...
"I have no idea," he said. "Maybe in high school, college. Not even in college. I had to play against Mickelson and all those guys. Does it make any difference that those guys aren't here? No. You're going to have great golf no matter who you play.
Toms is just glad he is healthy enough to play.
He was hospitalized four hours with food poisoning before the third round at La Costa, and was battling allergies toward the end of the week. He flew home to Louisiana after the tournament and got sick again from something he ate on the plane.
Toms had to skip his first PGA Tour policy board meeting, but never considered withdrawing from Doral.
"My son wanted to come to the pool here too bad," Toms said.
Toms hasn't won since October 2001, which he hopes to rectify as soon as possible.
Nicklaus, meanwhile, just wants to see how he plays.
He already has played on the 50-and-over Champions Tour three time this year with mixed results - tied for 11th in Hawaii, tied for 58th in Naples and tied for 15th in the Tampa Bay area.
Now, he plays on a longer course against guys half his age.
"I don't know if I will shoot a pair of 80s or a pair of 65s," Nicklaus said. "The latter is probably not too likely."
That doesn't seem to matter. Nicklaus had to work hard just to play in his Memorial Tournament last year, where he was at the same score with Woods going into the final round (even-par 216) before faltering to a 79.
He is on a diet program and looks as fit as ever, which has helped reduce some - but not all - of the aches and pains.
"I feel good," Nicklaus said. "I feel like it's time to play a little bit of golf. I don't ever expect to beat the world at 63, but I'm having fun."
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