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 that
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 depressingly 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 1/2 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
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.
He has learned, though, to take things one step at a time.
"Let's worry about next year when we get to next year," he said
after the Bell Atlantic. "This week went better than I had
expected. I'd give myself an A physically, and I'd give my game
a C plus. I accomplished what I wanted to."
Nicklaus was also pleased that "for a while on Saturday, I took
myself seriously out there. I need to do that if I want to win.
That, to me, is tournament golf: being able to win."
To play, to compete, to win. As complex as Nicklaus's life
sometimes seems, it's really quite simple. "I love the game in
my own way," he says. "I didn't think I would be playing all my
life, but I am."
Perhaps that was the best news of all last week. Instead of
seeking a graceful way out, Jack is happy to be back.
Nicklaus. "That's such a big part of who he is."