Carl Paulson flashed an easy smile following Friday's second round of the Chitimacha Louisiana Open, the first domestic stop on the 2011 Nationwide Tour schedule.
Paulson had put the finishing touches on a 1-over-par 72 at Le Triomphe Country Club and couldn't have been happier.
His 5-under 66 in Thursday's opener was the first time he'd broken par in a Tour event since July of 2005.
The 40-year-old Orlando resident is at 4-under 138 after 36 holes and will be around for the weekend. He will collect a paycheck for playing golf for the first time in nearly six years.
"I hit the tee shot on my last hole and handed the driver to my caddie and said 'I know this may sound stupid, but I won a little battle and made the cut this week,'" he said. "It's little things, little steps. If I can just build on that, I'll be okay."
A little step to many but a giant leap forward for Paulson, who all but disappeared from the professional scene in 2005, plagued by back problems that nearly derailed his career.
Paulson was 34 years old and just coming into his own on the PGA TOUR when it happened.
The opening round of the 2005 U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee had been pretty much washed out by rains. Friday morning in July at the Brown Deer Golf Club, Paulson was getting ready to resume a round that had him two-under through six holes when Thursday's play was halted.
"I warmed up for about 30 minutes hitting balls and dropped some balls on the putting green," he recalls. "I bent over to hit a putt and just did a face-plant, right there on the green. I couldn't stand up."
Doctors diagnosed him with three herniated discs in his lower back.
Suddenly, his career and his future were in doubt.
"I'd had problems with my back before but this one felt different," he says. "It hurt a lot more than the other ones. When we got home and saw my doctor, he said there was no way I was playing again that year."
Paulson, the son of a Lt. Colonel in the Marine Corps, had earned his stripes. He turned pro in 1994 after a hugely successfully collegiate career at the University of South Carolina.
He was the medalist at the 1994 PGA TOUR Qualifying Tournament and spent two seasons on Tour before losing his card temporarily.
While paying his dues on the Nationwide Tour, he became the Tour's Ironman -- making a record 83 consecutive starts from 1997-99.
When he finally broke through with his first career win at the 1999 Utah Classic, his 83rd straight start, Paulson took break from the game and went fishing. He came back the next week refreshed and promptly made it two in a row, adding hardware from the Boise Open to his now-growing trophy case.
"The first win was just pure relief. I had had about five chances to win that year," he says. "I got to the point that I wasn't going to be denied when I got another shot. When I came back, it all fell into place and I won again."
Paulson ended the year No. 1 on the money list and was named Player of the Year and was ready for a return trip to the PGA TOUR.
In four years he made 124 starts and earned more than $2.18M. He was runner-up at the 2001 Tampa Bay Classic where he was the 54-hole leader.
The future was bright.
Minor back and shoulder injuries limited him to only 13 starts in 2004 but he returned to Q-school in California, regained his card and was ready to go the following year.
It was all progressing nicely until that fateful Friday.
During the four years from 2006-09, Paulson never played competitive golf.
"I'd given up on playing again," he says. "I would go out on Friday with the guys but my back was killing me. I'd spend Saturdays laying on the couch because it hurt so bad."
Paulson kept searching for answers, hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel.
"We tried some different things to try and mend the parts that were ripped and torn but it didn't work," he says. "I'd say for the better part of three years I had given up on the idea of playing again. The doctors wanted to do a fusion and I simply was not going to. I've seen people get worse and the way I was, I could have lived out my life and been happy. I didn't want to take that chance with the rest of my life just to play golf again."
Paulson struggled through three different procedures on his back, hoping to get back to the normal life he thought he knew.
During his downtime, contemplating his professional future, he made three USO trips to Iraq to visit the United States troops.
"Each trip was about 11 days long. We flew into Kuwait and then on to Iraq. We wound up visiting about 13 to 15 bases in that time period," he says. "I've always believed wholeheartedly in the military but those trips were life changing."
So was the time he had at home with his family. Paulson got to enjoy extra time with his three young children.
"Looking back on it, it was a bad thing but it really wasn't. I got to coach Little League and Travel League baseball teams and stuff these guys will never get to do," he says of his peers and their commitment to the game that keeps them away from home for extended periods. "Their kids will be in high school and college when they're done playing so it was great in that sense. In the long run, I'm better off with what happened. My kids are 13, 9 and 6 and the last five years have been a blast."
Paulson's third and final surgery came in October of 2009. His rehabilitation included learning to rebuild a golf swing that would keep the pressure off his fully-repaired back.
"I changed coaches and went with a coach who teaches more about having your spine a very neutral position," he says. "It's taken a lot of pressure off my back."
Paulson made three starts on the Nationwide Tour late last year but didn't make a cut.
He played in PGA TOUR events in Mexico and Puerto Rico within the last month but missed the cut in both starts.
"I thought I was playing pretty well but my scores were not indicating I was," he says. "I felt like I was playing pretty decent but shooting 74s was frustrating. I just need to figure out how to turn those 74s into 69s."
A birdie/birdie/hole-in-one start on Thursday propelled him to a solid start as he tries rediscover a game that nearly abandoned him completely.
"The game is there," he says with a smile. "I haven't lost much distance. I just need to get better mentally at this point. I need to start focusing in on the spots where I want to hit it instead of thinking about where I don't want it to go."
Paulson is playing on Major Medical Exemption this year and will get 13 starts on the PGA TOUR. He'll need to earn $428,522 in order to keep his TOUR card for the remainder of the season. He'll also sprinkle in about eight starts on the Nationwide Tour to sharpen his game.
"It's baby steps at this point," he says. "Just one foot in front of the other and we'll see where it leads me."