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Optimism, eagerness are joined at the hip; With a new hip and a fully rotating body, why couldn't I rise to new, unimagined heights as a golfer?

If nothing else, I've been honest about my golf game through the years. I've admitted being emotionally ill-suited to the sport. I've pleaded guilty to every conceivable flaw known to golfers.

Now, after years of struggle, I finally have an excuse. My hip was the problem. Over the last decade, as I battled heroically to become a competent player, my arthritic right hip was conspiring against me.

Golf wasn't the main issue, though. My declining quality of life was the problem. Driving the golf ball is one thing. But when driving a car and putting a sock on your foot becomes an ordeal, you know it's time to act.

So on Valentine's Day, I got a right hip replacement.

Fifty days later, I'm not fully recovered. But with each passing day, I feel more like a new man. As the weather gets warmer and the grass greener, I look forward to returning as a stronger, longer and more flexible golfer.

"Yeah, you'll feel great," said Charlie Card, a long-time Buffalo amateur who has had both hips replaced. "Do you walk? You'll be able to walk again. You'll feel super."

That's what I wanted to hear. Walking the course is one of golf's great joys. There's something about walking from one shot to the next that helps me relax and focus. Riding in a cart disrupts the game's essential rhythms.

But over the last couple of years, walking became a physical chore. By the time I stood over a fairway iron, the hip was so sore I could barely stand up, never mind rotate into the shot. My right leg felt like an extra golf bag that I was dragging around the course.

Over a two-year period, I walked 18 holes just twice. By some miracle, I broke 90 for the first time in one of those rounds. But I haven't done it since.

Suffice it to say, I'm dying to get out there again.

Imagine me lying in bed last month, during a period of record-high temperatures, knowing my favorite course (Terry Hills) was open and not being able to play.

It's too soon to walk the course but I'm itching to play. Eight weeks isn't so soon, not when you have the right role models. Card had his right hip replaced in March of 1999 (around the same time Jack Nicklaus had his left hip replaced).

Card, who was 61 at the time, was chipping and putting within a month. Eight weeks after his surgery, he shot 77 on consecutive days at Willowbrook in Lockport. In early June, he played in the New York State qualifier at Moon Brook.

"I walked the whole course," said Card, one of the top amateurs in Western New York in his prime. "I was the medalist. I shot 34 on the back. I had worked out like a maniac before and was really strong."

Then there's the legendary Tom Watson, a hero to old and physically challenged golfers worldwide. In 2009, nine months after a hip replacement, Watson came within a missed putt of winning a sixth British Open title at age 59. Watson would have become the oldest man to win one of golf's standard majors, by some 12 years.

Watson had returned to pro golf three months after his surgery. Like Card, he had dedicated himself to his rehabilitation program to get ready for the golf course.

OK, so I'm not an athletic specimen, or a workout wonder.

But I'm in decent shape for 56 and there's no reason I can't be golfing again in a reasonable period of time.

With a new hip and a fully rotating body, why couldn't I rise to new, unimagined heights as a golfer?

"As long as your hip feels better, there's no reason you can't rotate," said Gary Battistoni, who has worked with Card and many other golfers after joint replacement. "If you understand the limitation, you can always get better."

My instructor, Marlene Davis, says I could generate more club speed and hit it farther with an artificial hip. But she knows my limitations and feels I should emphasize the basics, the things that helped me become more consistent despite a degenerating right hip.

"My advice is similar to what I had before the hip surgery," Davis said. "Practice your short game! If the short game comprises more than 65 percent of the game (100 yards and in), then it just makes sense to put in a good amount of practice time in these areas.

"As you continue on to a full recovery," she said, "the putting green will be one of the first places to practice that will have the least impact on your new hip. This works in your favor, especially since it was your right hip. When you're putting or chipping, it's proper practice to have slightly more weight on our left foot."

All right, I get the point. Thanks to Davis, I've made great strides in my short game. It was a consistent touch inside 100 yards, not crushing the ball off the tee, that lifted my game.

Marlene's message is the same as always. Slow down and survey the situation. Don't do the dumb guy thing. Don't start by running out to the range with a driver to see how well you can rotate with your marvelous new titanium hip.

Dr. Patrick Hlubik, who did my surgery, concurs. Docs tend to be conservative. He said most golfers wait at least three months to play and said I should start out with chipping and putting.

"I wouldn't start swinging the driver full-bore right now," Dr. Hlubik told me last week. "If you want to start doing that in two weeks, maybe."

Fine. Short game, it is. I hit about 30 balls at the range last weekend. I won't lie to you. I hit a couple of full 7-irons. I survived. The new hip didn't fall apart. In fact, I felt an exhilarating sense of rotation! Two weeks? That means a week from today. Is Terry Hills open? Am I off? What's the weather report? How about the par-3 course at Audubon? Right about now, that place seems like Augusta to me.

Speaking of Augusta, can I watch the Masters this weekend without being tempted to dash out and play?

"Stretch and make sure you're fully flexible," said Card, a 4 handicap at Sheridan. He recently had his left hip replaced. This time, the recovery has been more difficult.

Of course, he's 74. The '99 hip replacement seems like the good old days.

"The other one is great, just great," Card said. "The doctor evaluated that hip when he did the other one and said it's like the day they put it in."

I can push it, then?

"Oh, yeah," Card said. "Get out and do it."

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com