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Nichols' hopes were left mired in mud on No. 18

What did in Bobby Nichols? Was it the losing streak, or the mud?

Nichols, 55, a man toughened in life by a frightening car accident, a football stint under Bear Bryant and a lightning strike on a golf course, missed out on another Senior PGA Tour title.

Nichols bogeyed the par-4 18th hole of the GTE Suncoast Classic, falling one shot behind the leaders to finish third. In his seventh year on the senior tour, the man who won 11 PGA titles has taken home only one senior win.

On that last hole Sunday, Nichols swatted a wonder drive 245 yards, 170 yards from the hole. "The best drive I hit all day, my best of the tournament," said Nichols, who slumped when he approached his ball. "I get up there and I'm in a crevice. I'm not complaining. It's just one of those unfortunate things. It had a wad of mud on the back of the ball.

"When you have a wad of mud, if it's on the left side of the ball, it's supposed to go right. And if it's on the right side of the ball, it's supposed to go left. That's what I've always been told."

Nichols never did figure which side of his ball had most of the mud stuck. He only knew what to avoid _ the water right of the green.

"So I'm sitting here on 18, trying to figure out how I can play this shot," Nichols said. "I hit some ugly, funky-looking thing (a 6-iron) and reached the bunker and made bogey.

"But I had some good breaks and I can't complain."

Nichols, who was born in Louisville, Ky., and lives in Fort Myers, doesn't complain much after his bigger breaks. A 1952 car accident broke his pelvis and left him paralyzed and unconscious for 13 days. He recovered to play football under Bear Bryant at Texas A&M (Class of '58). In 1975, Nichols was struck by lightning during the Western Open.

A victory this week at the TPC of Tampa Bay at Cheval would have been fitting for Nichols, who won his first professional tournament 30 years ago at the Lakewood Country Club, in the St. Petersburg Open. He won 10 more events, including the 1964 PGA Championship.

Nichols joined the seniors in 1986 with high expectations. He has played well but won just once, in 1989 in Oklahoma City.

"I can't seem to get over the hump," he said. "I played well enough to win (today), but the score wasn't good enough. The guys just played better. I got beat. I don't think I beat myself today. I'm real proud of that. I played a good round."

Included in his round of 67 was a 4-iron on the 197-yard 17th, which settled 2 feet from the hole. On the same hole, George Archer sank a 30-footer for birdie, stealing Nichols' applause.

"That kind of killed me," Nichols said.

Archer's putt hurt, almost as much as the patch of mud on the next hole.