Last Friday, as Jack Nicklaus made the steep climb up the 18th fairway at Hartefeld National Golf Club during the opening round of the Bell Atlantic Classic, it was as if the ceramic ball and socket implanted in his left hip had not only rejuvenated his 59-year-old body, but also galvanized the hundreds of fans who had come out to see him play again. Even though Nicklaus was two over par and well behind the leaders, a chant rose from the crowd: Jack is back.... Jack is back.... Jack is back.
Literally, Nicklaus was back. After a surprisingly quick recovery from the Jan. 27 hip replacement surgery, Nicklaus chose this middling Senior tour event in the Philadelphia suburb of Avondale, Pa., to return to competition after an absence of 298 days, his longest stretch away from tournament play since he was a teenager.
Finally free of the pain that last year forced him to end his streak of playing in consecutive majors at 145, Nicklaus came to the Bell Atlantic to shake out the cobwebs and get his game in some kind of shape for his own tournament, next week's Memorial, and two weeks after that, the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. He accomplished that and more. Although still weak physically, rusty mechanically and fuzzy mentally, Nicklaus succeeded in replacing the strained expression of frustration that was seemingly always on his face in recent years with the serene smile of a man making a fresh start. Nicklaus looked self-assured last week, like the Jack of old.
He admitted that his scores, 74, 70 and 70, were nothing special. They left him two under par and in 18th place, eight shots behind winner Tom Jenkins, who beat Jim Thorpe on the first hole of sudden death. In fact Nicklaus characterized his play as "a lot of not terrible but not good shots." Nevertheless, his play convinced him that his competitive days are far from over. "I'm not worried about my golf game," he said, sounding more like a 25-year-old world-beater than someone who hasn't broken 70 in his last 30 rounds. "My game will come around." Jack is back, indeed.
The new hip has transformed Nicklaus into a different golfer from the one who was limping so badly at last July's Senior Open that his every televised swing induced a national wince. At Hartefeld, Nicklaus betrayed only the slightest hitch in his get-along and walked all three rounds on what the players agree is the Senior tour's hilliest course. He rode in a cart only once—when an official picked him up at a portable rest room and drove him back to his group, 200 yards ahead—thereby avoiding reentry into the Casey Martin controversy. (Nicklaus had testified against Martin during the latter's case against the PGA Tour.) Nicklaus decided to walk, though, for a more practical reason. "I want to get my legs back," he said.
Nicklaus has concluded that whatever he lost from the surgery, or the 11-inch scar he gained, was worth it. "The day Jack decided to have the replacement, I swear he got 10 years younger," says his wife, Barbara. Although George Archer proved last year that a golfer can win with an artificial hip (Archer won the First of America Classic, in August), Nicklaus resisted the first major surgery of his life until he was certain mat the exercise program he had faithfully followed for years could no longer make his hip functional. The last straw came in Australia, before December's Presidents Cup, when Nicklaus, the U.S. team captain, made a de-pressingly painful attempt to play nine holes and could not finish. After undergoing the procedure at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, Nicklaus followed his doctors' instructions perfectly, progressing smoothly from crutches to a cane to walking to swinging a club. He was well enough to walk 18-hole rounds a month ahead of schedule.
He already appears more athletic. Although Nicklaus swung easily at the Bell Atlantic because he wanted to avoid possible reinjury and because he still lacks strength (he averaged only 257-2 yards off the tee, which put him 64th in driving distance in the 76-man field), he's convinced that he's capable of making a better swing than he has in years. Careful not to get carried away with expectations, Nicklaus was quick to point out that he will never regain the flexibility and strength of his youth. "The hip is the only thing that works perfectly," he said. "Everything else in my body is 59� years old."
Golf is fun again, though. In early April, when Nicklaus was given the O.K. to play, he rounded up his four sons and took them on in spirited matches for milk shakes at Loxahatchee or Lost Tree near his North Palm Beach home—Nicklaus did not participate in the wager the brothers have among themselves: The loser must eat dog food—and soon began longing for tournament play. After he had shot 71 at Muirfield Village two weeks ago and then another 71 at the Country Club, site of the Ryder Cup later this year, he asked permission from his doctor, Benjamin Bierbaum, to enter the Bell Atlantic.
The speed with which Nicklaus thrust himself back into competition drew an understanding smile from his wife, who, even as her husband insisted that the hip replacement was first and foremost a lifestyle decision, knew better. "He really loves playing when it means something," says Barbara. "If it had turned out that he couldn't play tournament golf again, it would have been extremely disappointing. That's such a big part of who he is."
The week after Pinehurst, Nicklaus intends to play in the Senior Players Championship and two weeks after that in the Senior Open. He'll also probably play in the PGA in August, but it is the year 2000 that looms largest on his radar screen. At 60, Nicklaus will be saying farewell as a serious competitor at three of the majors, all of which will be held at venues he loves—Pebble Beach, his favorite course; St. Andrews, his favorite place in golf; and Valhalla, which he designed. Along with Augusta, he considers all four courses primarily strategic tests for which length is not critical. Most important, freed from the tyranny of the three-hour-a-day exercise regimen required to keep his old hip functional, Nicklaus is looking forward to preparing for those majors in a way in which he hasn't since the 1980s.