By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Retief Goosen figures he's about eight millimeters taller these days. The important thing, though, is that he has no pain after the surgery last fall to replace the disc in his back that had basically disintegrated.
The 44-year-old South African shut things down after he tied for 48th at last year's PGA Championship. He was tired of the back spasms he'd battled for several years. He couldn't deal with waking up in pain anymore when he tried to turn over in his bed at night.
So the week after Goosen left Kiawah Island, S.C., he was in London having an operation to put a titanium disc with a rubber center in his back. The next day, Goosen felt significantly better. Within a month, he was walking around virtually pain.
On Thursday, six months after the surgery, Goosen begins his 2013 PGA TOUR campaign at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, playing in the tournament for the third time in his career. He's got a couple of events under his belt, though, the best being a tie for 20th at the Volvo Golf Champions in his native South Africa in his first start. He missed the cut in his other start at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.
The two-time U.S. Open champion didn't start hitting balls until mid-December. The first few struck, he said, were "very interesting" and traveled about 70 yards. But within a week, Goosen was hitting drivers and by the holidays he felt like he wanted to tee it up again in competition.
"It was quite exciting," Goosen said. "I struggled to walk the four rounds, but my back felt great. Never had any issues in my back."
Prior to the surgery, though, Goosen was wondering whether he had a future in the game.
"It was impossible to go through 18 holes without getting spasms in the back and struggling to hit some shots on certain lies," Goosen said. "For me the decision was not easy, but in a way I just felt it could only be better. ... At that stage I pretty much felt like my career was over. I couldn't hit the ball anymore; I couldn't practice."
Now that he can hit balls in earnest, Goosen -- who believes he is the first pro golfer to ever have a disc replacement -- plans to play a full schedule on the PGA TOUR. He has fallen to 119th in the world rankings and is only exempt for one of the majors, the U.S. Open, and none of the World Golf Championships. So there's work to be done.
"I feel 20 years younger coming in this year," said Goosen, who finished third at Pebble Beach in 2009. "I feel great. For me, I feel like I got a lot better chance of playing better now than I did the last couple of years at least just because the way I feel.
"It's still early days. ... We'll see how it will hold up in the next few months playing a lot and getting back into the swing things. But for me, so far the results are unbelievable."