AVONDALE, Pa. -- Jack Nicklaus walked to the 10th tee yesterday at Hartefeld National Golf Club with a slight hitch in his step. His first swing of the day wasn't the robust and powerful swipe he had displayed for more than 40 years, but one that looked a trifle tentative.
Clearly, this wasn't the same Nicklaus who dominated the game of golf longer than any other player in history, but no one in the gallery seemed to mind. The spectators were just happy to see him back for the first time since his hip-replacement surgery.
Nicklaus, 59, will begin play today in the $1.1 million Bell Atlantic Classic. It will be his first tournament since the U.S. Senior Open last July, and since he had his left hip replaced with a ceramic prosthesis on Jan. 27.
He may be more than two months ahead of schedule in his return to competition, but Nicklaus conceded yesterday that he was at about 85 percent of his top form.
He has yet to regain his strength. In the 20-odd rounds he has played since receiving the green light to swing again, he has yet to break 70, he said.
"I'm a solid 4-handicap," he joked. "I've shot my share of 78s and 80s in the last month."
His expectations for the 54-hole weekend were low, but he said he was not worried about performance. He carded an even-par 72 in yesterday's Pro-Am after starting out at 3 over through his first four holes.
"Right now, I'm not sure that I can aim at the world and hit it," Nicklaus said before playing. "I stand up there and I might hit one left and I might hit one right. I might hit it fat. My short game is not sharp. I hit pitch shots and I'm bored in 10 minutes.
"One of the things I'm going to be very interested to find out is, once somebody rings the bell and says `Let's go play,' how will my focus and concentration be? I've got to learn that over again. It's going to be a pretty interesting process. I'd like to sit on the sidelines and watch, but I'm not sure I want to do it."
Nicklaus was in no hurry to regain championship form. When Dr. Benjamin Bierbaum replaced the hip at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, he figured that Nicklaus could return to tournament golf in six months.
However, Nicklaus had a shorter rehabilitation in mind. At the Masters in April, he indicated that he would play in his Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, which begins on June 3, and that he wanted to enter the Bell Atlantic as a tuneup. He officially committed to this event on May 12, one day after playing at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., with Bierbaum.
"I'm not expecting too much of myself," he said. "Certainly, if I could be reasonably competitive this week, I would be jumping up and down. I'm not going to expect more of myself than what I think I can do. The doctor said it would be six months before I could play in tournament golf. Well, I'm two months ahead of it, and I have two months to get my game back."
Nicklaus, who did not intend to take a cart, was apprehensive about the types of shots he would face. Hartefeld National, which he called "probably the hilliest golf course on the Senior Tour," will offer a variety of sidehill, downhill and uphill lies, and he conceded that he would probably play it safe if faced with difficult shots rather than risk injury.
But, as Nicklaus said several times yesterday: "I've got to start somewhere."
"I'm excited about playing, sure," he said. "It's been 10 months since I played a tournament. But am I apprehensive? Yeah, absolutely. I'm not sure what's going to happen."
"Obviously, any time I tee it up, I want to do the best I can," he said. "I'm not looking to be any whiz kid this week. Those were from Philadelphia, weren't they?"
Pub Date: 5/21/99