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Nicklaus may not be back till August

Jack Nicklaus, back at New England Baptist Hospital to meet with the doctors who gave him a new hip six weeks ago, expects to be chipping and putting in two to three weeks.

Both Nicklaus and Dr. Benjamin E. Bierbaum, head of orthopaedic surgery at New England Baptist Hospital, said the rehabilitation was going well. So well, in fact, Nicklaus joked that he would begin playing golf Thursday.

Realistically, Nicklaus expects to be back on the links in four months.

The 59-year-old winner of a record 18 professional majors was troubled for years by a degenerative left hip.

Nicklaus tried to avoid hip-replacement surgery with a rigorous exercise routine, but finally yielded when the hip began to affect his quality of life as well as his game.

"Going to the shopping centre with my wife or playing athletics, going fishing or hunting, or anything like that, I couldn't do it. All I did was hobble," Nicklaus said.

As a result, Nicklaus agreed to use a ceramic hip replacement as part of a study directed by Bierbaum and involving 10 hospitals. Ceramic is smoother than materials typically used in hip implants and is believed to last longer.

Nicklaus will miss the Masters in April for the first time in 40 years. But he hopes to play in the Memorial Tournament the first week of June, although he and his doctors agree that playing the BankBoston Classic in August is more likely.

"The Memorial is still my goal, but whether I'll make that or not, I doubt it," said Nicklaus, who has putted only 12 times in the last three months.

"I'll certainly be able to play golf by then, but whether or not I'll be able to play four or five days in a row and handle the fatigue of that is a question. But it gives me a goal and if I don't make that, I've got the Open right after and the Senior right after that."

While he would prefer not to, Nicklaus, who currently uses a cane to help support his weight, admitted he'll consider riding a cart for part of the senior tournament.

"I would rather do it and do it the way I'm physically supposed to do it," Nicklaus said. "But if I can only walk half a round and it would allow me to get started, then that would probably be appropriate. But I would prefer not to do it."

Although he isn't ready to walk the courses, Nicklaus has made great strides since the Jan. 27 operation. He can now tie his own shoes, bend his knee above a 90 degree angle, and most importantly, he danced at son Michael's wedding Feb. 20.

"I did the four-legged two-step," he said.

Over the next several weeks, Bierbaum said Nicklaus will work on antigravity exercises, like leg lifts, as well as follow a swimming regimen.

"The most important thing is being functional," Nicklaus said. "Once you're functional, you can do anything."

Despite the hip problems, Nicklaus became the oldest player to finish in the top 10 in the Masters last April when he thrilled the Augusta gallery yet again with a final-round 68 to tie for sixth.

But he was hobbling so badly in the summer that he pulled out of the British Open, ending his streak of 146 consecutive majors.

This will be the first time Nicklaus has missed the Masters since 1958, four years before he turned pro.