AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Jack Nicklaus is a 60-year-old realist. Even so, it comes as something of a shock to hear one of the greatest golfers ever say he no longer considers himself a contender at the Masters.
But that is the state of the Golden Bear's game.
Age, arthritis, injuries and his well-publicized hip replacement surgery have combined to play havoc with his skills.
''Realistically, I don't think I should be a contender at Augusta,'' Nicklaus says, as he prepares to return to the Masters after missing last year while learning to walk with a ceramic hip. ''I would just like to play well. If I can get somewhere near the leaders, then at my age, that's pretty good.''
The six-time champion at one of the world's most renowned courses says he has felt that way for the last five, six, seven years. Yet it was only two years ago that he made a late charge and actually had a chance to win the green jacket.
He finished sixth in the tournament won by Mark O'Meara and -- no surprise -- offered the most memorable, electrifying moments of the four-day event.
''When he makes his mind up that he's going to play well, as he did two years ago, obviously it's a different story,'' Ben Crenshaw says. ''If he says he doesn't think he's a contender, I would believe it. But we've seen him on different occassions. He's very capable.''
And that's why he's going back to Augusta.
Maybe there are four great days of golf left in the Bear, and maybe they will come at one of his favorite venues, the sight of his last great triumph, the 1986 Masters.
But time is dwindling.
As recently as two weeks ago, his game was a self-described mess, wrecked, strangely enough, as he returned to full health after the hip surgery.
''I was compensating for the hip for so many years,'' Nicklaus says. ''Then, I came back and the hip started functioning normally. I don't remember how to swing the way I used to swing. It seems like every day, some new problem crops up.''
He tried to work that out during practice rounds at Augusta last week. To succeed at that course -- and nobody knows the secret better -- he'll have to find a right-to-left swing pattern, one he has often mustered at Augusta even though it goes against his natural game.
Although his expectations are diminished, that week of practice is for more than just show.
''Obviously, I want to play well at Augusta,'' Nicklaus says. ''Do I think I can play well at Augusta? I hope so.''
After playing in the Tradition, the first major on the Senior Tour, it's off to the Masters to begin his tour of the four majors, the last time he'll commit to playing all four in the same year.
''I'll still go to one if it's a course, or a time when it makes sense,'' Nicklaus says.
But can he compete?
''He's hurting a little bit,'' Tom Watson says. ''He's had some arthritis in his thumbs. He's 60 years old. After hitting a couple million golf balls, hitting the turf that much, you're going to find a couple of things that hurt. But he's in good shape. He's kept himself in good shape. He's strong.''
He has 18 majors and 71 PGA Tour victories. Since 1970, he has designed more than 200 courses, an endeavor that occupies more and more of his time each year.
He has no need to stay in the competitive phase of the game, and says the hip injury was mainly to improve his overall quality of life.
''If I could still play competitive golf, that would just be a bonus,'' he says.
He'll get a chance to find out at Augusta, a place he has always found hard to resist.
He returns on the 25-year anniversary of his classic showdown with Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf. On a wonderful day of shotmaking, Nicklaus made a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 16 to win the tournament -- Miller made a late comeback to catch the other two -- in what is largely considered one of the best Masters ever.
''That was the most competitive Masters I can remember,'' Nicklaus says. ''But 1986 wasn't too bad from my standpoint.''
Nobody expected him to win that year, either. And although he's older, slower and has a little gray cropping up in that famous head of golden blond hair, he's not completely ready to resign himself to simply playing ceremonial golf.
Neither is the rest of the field.
''He may be struggling,'' Lanny Wadkins says, ''but I don't think anyone is going to be getting the violins out yet for Jack.''
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