The biggest obstacle wasn’t from any physical setback, and Jamie Lovemark didn’t sense any subconscious restraint to protect his mended lower back. Nor was he all that bitter about the way his PGA TOUR rookie season got wrecked.
But where did that annoying hook come from?
“I had about eight months off, so that’s a lot of time off,” Lovemark said. “I guess your body changes. I don’t know why, but something changed big-time.”
Fixing that flaw took far longer than recovering from the back surgery itself. Now nearly two years after going under the knife in his early 20s, Lovemark is back on the path so many had foreseen after he left USC early to turn pro.
Last week’s victory at the Midwest Classic was his first since he led the Web.com Tour in earnings three years ago. He’s now 14th on this year’s money list, likely good enough to regain that PGA TOUR card but still not quite where he was before.
“I’m definitely looking forward to better things,” said Lovemark, whose only top-10 finishes of 2013 have come in his past two starts. “There’s still a lot of golf left this year. I want to win again; I want a lot of great finishes. I want a more thorough chance to prove myself to others.”
Lovemark had pretty much proven himself at every level when he got his PGA TOUR promotion at the end of 2010. One of the nation’s most highly sought junior golfers, he captured the NCAA individual title as a freshman in 2007. A few weeks later, he lost a Web.com Tour playoff in Minnesota to Chris Riley.
Leaving USC, Lovemark almost notched his first PGA TOUR win in just his fourth pro start, falling to Troy Matteson at the 2009 Frys.com Open in a playoff that also included Rickie Fowler. His one season on the Web.com Tour ended with earnings of $452,951, still No. 4 on the all-time list.
Even before affixing his name to that PGA TOUR card, though, problems were brewing.
A redeye flight to his South Florida home and long drive to Jacksonville left him in pain for the season’s next-to-last event, and things never got better. Offseason rest provided no relief.
“From October until we started up in Hawaii, I couldn’t really practice that much because it hurt so bad,” he said. “As I started playing, it just got worse and worse and worse.”
In nine rookie starts, Lovemark made two cuts. By the time he shot 80 in the opening round of the Shell Houston Open, he could hardly bend over. Three months of rest and rehabilitation offered no relief.
“We got another MRI, and it had gotten worse,” Lovemark said. “That was a huge bummer.
“I was really looking forward to that first full year on tour, and that’s not the way I drew it up. But I know all golfers get hurt; all athletes eventually get injured. It’s just part of your life.”
Surgery in August 2011 was followed by three more months of rehab, watching televised golf and strumming his guitar. “It’s hard just sitting around,” he said.
Lovemark played on a major medical extension through the first half of 2012, but made just six of 16 cuts. His only finish among the top 40 came at the Puerto Rico Open, where he tied for 20th after a third-round 68.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to make the money,” Lovemark said. “In a short year, there’s such an emphasis to have a good finish every week.
“Each week that passes where you’re not in the top 10, you’re thinking, ‘That’s one tournament less. Now I have to play even better.’ It’s just hard.”
And then there was the matter of the hook. Since his junior days, a controlled left-to-right fade had been central to Lovemark’s success. At first he attributed the hook to rustiness, but it stubbornly persisted.
“It was hard to get the ball in play,” Lovemark said. “The back had been fine for a while, but my swing – I was just getting too far underneath [my usual] plane. My misses when I went underneath were just horrific.”
Last year, Lovemark hit the fairway just 51.8 percent of the time between the two tours. Working out a fix has been his No.1 priority since April, spending as much as eight hours a day on the range.
The breakthrough came at last month’s Monday qualifier for the Greenbrier Classic, where Lovemark didn’t survive a playoff after shooting 65. On the encouraging side, he didn’t miss a fairway.
“That’s when things started to turn around,” he said.
An open week allowed Lovemark to fine-tune his fix. Arriving at the Utah Championship, he tied for seventh with three rounds of 67 or better. Then it was off to Los Angeles for two days with swing coach Chris Zambri – his college coach at USC – before heading to Kansas City.
“I flew in late Tuesday night, played the pro-am Wednesday and then just teed off,” said Lovemark, who opened 67-68 before a Saturday 65 left him two shots behind Chesson Hadley.
A Sunday 66 made up the difference, with Lovemark sinking a 15-foot par to finish off a one-stroke triumph. “The first putt in my life to win a tournament,” he said. “It was cool to have that chance. Now I’m 1-for-1.”
And, perhaps, well on his way back to the promise of three years ago. Lovemark won’t make any bold declaration, but he’s hopeful.
“I guess we’ll find out more this week,” he said. “It feels good, I know that.”