KORN FERRY TOUR INSIDER
Bramlett's back injury won't quash TOUR dream
February 07, 2018
By Kevin Prise, PGATOUR.COM
- With swing coach John Scott Rattan on the bag, Joseph Bramlett recorded a top-30 finish in Panama. (Kevin Prise/PGA TOUR)
After hitting his approach shot at the 72nd hole of last week’s Panama Championship, Joseph Bramlett beamed as he returned the club to caddie John Scott Rattan, who doubles as his swing coach.
Bramlett had plenty of reason to smile. After being sidelined for nearly two years due to an ongoing back condition that also forced him to miss extended time earlier this decade, he had navigated Club de Golf de Panama in stellar fashion for four days – and his health was holding up.
The Stanford alum closed with a par for a four-day total of 2-over 282, good for a tie for 27th place in the usual demanding conditions of Panama GC.
Aside from the solid result that moves Bramlett closer to the earnings needed to maintain Web.com Tour status via a medical extension, the week signals to Bramlett that his goal of returning to the PGA TOUR is still within the realm of possibility, despite the ups and downs of overcoming the lateral spine dysfunction that has caused aggravation since his back flared up on the range at the 2013 Utah Championship presented by Zions Bank.
Could surgery help Bramlett? In terms of managing pain, yes.
But surgery would end his career.
Is that an option at this time? Despite the setbacks and the discomfort, the answer is a resounding "no."
“Seeing just about every surgeon in the country … great surgeons, but the only type of surgery they can do, putting rods in my lower back to stabilize my lower spine, I would lose mostly all my mobility,” Bramlett said after the final round in Panama. “It would end my career, and that’s not an option.
“The tricky thing about my situation … if I don’t play golf, it doesn’t hurt.”Joseph Bramlett qualified for the U.S. Amateur at age 14, and had a standout collegiate career at Stanford. (Kevin Prise/PGA TOUR)
After graduating from Stanford in 2010, Bramlett earned his PGA TOUR card through that fall’s Qualifying Tournament, and he quickly drew attention by becoming the first player of black heritage to earn TOUR status since fellow Cardinal alum Tiger Woods.
Bramlett, 29, failed to keep his TOUR card in his rookie season. He narrowly missed a TOUR return via the 2012 Web.com Tour Season, finishing No. 28 on the money list, then was having a solid 2013 campaign (four top-25 finishes in 14 starts) before his career turned with a swing on the range at Willow Creek Country Club in Sandy, Utah – “I got over the ball … and my back went out,” he recounted to PGA TOUR Digital in 2016.
The native of Stanford, California, spent the next year flying across the country to see an estimated 15 surgeons, told each time that he wasn’t a candidate for surgery. He went 21 months without playing a full round of golf, rebuilt his swing and his strength, and made his competitive return at the 2016 Panama Championship, where he finished T18.
“I was like, I’m back; I’m playing every week. I’m good,” he remembers.
“That didn’t work.”Joseph Bramlett fired rounds of 73-68-72-69 at Panama GC in his first Web.com Tour start since 2016. (Kevin Prise/PGA TOUR)
Bramlett played the following week’s Club Colombia Championship, and the Brasil Champions presented by Embrase a few weeks later, but the injury got ‘progressively worse.’
The lengthy flight to Brazil was hard on his back, the tournament was no better, and he came to the unfortunate realization that the rehabilitation and swing changes had failed to provide the necessary foundation for a long career.
So it was back to the drawing board.
Bramlett met with Lance Gill of the Titleist Performance Institute, who has worked with a variety of PGA TOUR and Web.com Tour professionals, and came to realize that his initial foray at a comeback had failed due in part to instability in his lower body.
With the help of Rattan, who is based at Congressional CC in the Washington, D.C. area, he rebuilt his swing in hopes of once again finding a remedy for the continued lower-back discomfort triggered by the practice necessary to maintain a Tour-level golf game.
“We completely restructured, rebuilt my golf swing,” said Bramlett, who began working with Rattan about a year and a half ago.
“My footwork is a lot better; my hips move a lot more stably. It takes a lot of stress off my whole back … when I came back last time, I didn’t have solid footwork. I had a lot more hip rotation, because my feet weren’t planted firmly on the ground. It wasn’t a good foundation, and the same issues reoccurred.”At this point, I almost have a doctorate. I feel like I could analyze other people's backs by now.
During the past 18 months, Bramlett and Rattan have grown close – “he’s one of my best friends,” Bramlett said – and the two texts "every day" about the swing and trying to take as much stress as possible off Bramlett’s back.
A former All-American who qualified for the U.S. Amateur at age 14, Bramlett knows there are no guarantees. Upon signing his final-round scorecard in Panama, Bramlett admitted to feeling tired and beat-up – “I feel like I sound like an old man right now,” he joked.
Competition-wise, Bramlett has three Web.com Tour starts remaining on his minor medical extension, needing to earn $13,677 to maintain status for the remainder of the season.
Based on his scores of 73-68-72-69 in Panama, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. His golf game is in tournament shape.
It’s just up to the body. Now working with physical therapist Cody Fowler – conveniently based in Las Gatos, California, just 15 minutes from Bramlett’s home – he’s ready for another shot at a career resurrection.
“I’ve had a lot of movement issues since I was a kid, that put a lot of stress on my back … misdiagnoses led me down the wrong road, and at this point I almost have a doctorate,” Bramlett said. “I feel like I could analyze other people’s backs by now.
“It’s been a pain in the ass, very frustrating … I’m sure people are like, ‘What the heck? Does he still play?' … but it feels so good to be back and playing again.
“It’s been a tough road. The last time, I was really excited to be back, and the last couple years have been much harder. There have been a lot of ups and downs, and a lot of emotional frustrations, wondering if this is actually going to work, but it feels good to be back.”
Blast from the past.— Web.com Tour (@WebDotComTour) February 3, 2018
Making his first #WebTour start in nearly two years, @StanfordMGolf alum Joseph Bramlett shot a second-round 68 @ClubGolfPanama to move inside the top 25. pic.twitter.com/m6juAK05fT
Bramlett admits there are times when he considered having surgery, but he has held off, knowing his best chance at competing at the highest level is to stay the course, through effective therapy and maintaining a swing that minimizes the stress on his lower back.
He’s been playing and practicing consistently, and he’s encouraged by the week in Panama. After trying to do too much to early in his 2016 return, he’s taking this week off. He’ll assess things with Rattan and Fowler, and he’ll eye another start at next month’s El Bosque Mexico Championship by Innova.
“I’m taking it one week at a time,” Bramlett said. “I’m tempering my expectations and trying to take a little slower approach this time.”
Still two months shy of his 30th birthday, after all, Bramlett has plenty of time on his side.