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Nicklaus announces comeback from hip surgery

Jack Nicklaus hasn't run out of ways to amaze.

Defying doctors who predicted four months ago that the six-time Masters champion would miss six months after hip replacement surgery, Nicklaus said Wednesday that he will begin his comeback next week at the Senior PGA Tour's Bell Atlantic Classic.

Nicklaus plans to use the suburban Philadelphia tournament as a tuneup for his Memorial Tournament June 3-6 in Dublin, Ohio.

"This tournament works out well for me as it relates to my return to competitive golf," Nicklaus said. "I'm looking forward very much to playing."

Nicklaus, 59, underwent surgery to replace his left hip in January, forcing him to miss his first Masters in 40 years. Doctors who predicted he'd miss six months have been amazed by his rehabilitation, which included playing 18 holes daily.

His appearance in the Bell Atlantic at Hartfeld National will be his first competitive round since he shot a 67 for a 13th-place tie in the Senior Open in July 1998. Nicklaus finished eighth in last year's Bell Atlantic tournament.

"When he plays, it's a huge deal," Fred Couples, a former Masters champion, said from Irving, Texas, where he's preparing for the Byron Nelson Classic.

"I hope he looks good walking," Couples said. ``The score is irrelevant. But I don't think people will fall down if he makes the cut. He wouldn't play if he didn't think he could win."

Tom Watson, who engaged Nicklaus in some of golf's most stirring showdowns in the 1970s, said he was "happy for him. He was walking with a little limp when I saw him at Augusta. It doesn't surprise me what Jack does. He has a focus about him that's better than anyone else out here.

"He's one of the greatest to ever play the game, if not the greatest. To have that personality in the field makes that field more complete."

Nicklaus' return provides an obvious boost for the Bell Atlantic tournament.

"We're very honored that we're the first event that he's playing, because not only does that mean a lot, but it's great for senior tour golf," said Mary Ann Saleski, a tournament spokeswoman. "To watch Jack in another segment of his life just adds to the whole esteem of his career."

During a ceremonial appearance at Augusta National in April, Nicklaus said he hoped the Bell Atlantic would get him ready for the Memorial, a prestigious tournament played on a course Nicklaus designed.

"It would tell me how much I can walk and how much I could do," Nicklaus said at the time. "I might play there and I might find out I can't play at the Memorial."

Last year, Nicklaus became the oldest player to finish in the top 10 in the Masters, shooting a final-round, 4-under-par 68 to tie for sixth. But slowed by his hip problems, Nicklaus played only six senior tour events last year.