Nicklaus said Wednesday that "it would surprise me" if Woods did not return to competitive golf in time for the Masters, a tournament the embattled world No. 1 has won four times in his career.
"I suspect he'll play something before Augusta," Nicklaus said behind the 18th green at PGA National, where the Honda Classic opens on Thursday. "Your guess is as good as mine. I'd be very surprised if he doesn't play something before Augusta."
Nicklaus has been reluctant to comment much about Woods since the saga involving revelations of infidelity began late last year, saying more than once that someone else's private life isn't any of his business. He reiterated that belief again Wednesday after finishing his Pro-Am round at the South Florida course he redesigned.
A person with knowledge of Woods' schedule told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Woods returned to his home near Orlando, Fla. over the weekend after a week of family counseling and resumed practicing for the first time in nearly four months.
Like many, Nicklaus seemed to take that as a sign that Woods could be back sooner than later. The Masters begins April 8.
"It would surprise me if he didn't," Nicklaus said. "I can't imagine in 100 years he's going to miss this. None of you guys do either. But I don't know. I don't know. I've been very noncommittal about anything as it's not my business. But as it relates to him playing golf, my guess is as a golfer he's going to want to try to play Augusta if he's got his other things in order."
Earlier this year, Nicklaus said 2010 would be "a big year" for Woods if he wanted to get closer to Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships. Three of this year's majors will be on courses where Woods has been dominant before, Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews.
Of Woods' 14 majors, half have come on those three courses. Woods has never missed a Masters or a U.S. Open since 1995.
Nicklaus is going back to the Masters, a tournament he won six times, as an honorary starter this year. He agreed to take on the role last year, and will join Arnold Palmer for the opening shot of the tournament. In time, he expects Gary Player to join them.
The honorary start is something Nicklaus never saw as a player, and he spent several minutes Wednesday talking about that after finishing the round he played with Dan Marino, Drew Brees and saxophonist Kenny G. (For what it's worth, Nicklaus said he broke 80, after closing birdie-birdie.)
Then the questions turned to Woods.
"I didn't think I was going to have anything else," Nicklaus said.
Woods was photographed hitting balls at Isleworth on Feb. 18. One day later, he ended nearly three months of silence by speaking to a small group of associates, a statement that got worldwide attention.
"I do plan to return to golf one day, I just don't know when that day will be," Woods said on Feb. 19. "I don't rule out that it will be this year."
Nicklaus was asked if Woods' presence would make the Champions Dinner, a pre-Masters tradition, different than normal.
The only man with more major championships than Woods didn't hesitate to answer.
"No. It's the Champions Dinner," Nicklaus said. "His personal life is his personal life. As a golfer, he's a sensational golfer. He's a great athlete. He'll figure out his own problems. But as a golfer, he'll come back and get his game in shape and play. That's what he does."