PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Retief Goosen started the week celebrating his 44th birthday. The two-time U.S. Open champion has reason to feel much younger.
For starters, he's playing golf.
When he left the PGA Championship last August, Goosen wasn't sure he'd ever play again. His back had been bothering him for three years, and it reached a point that a disc in his lower back essentially had disintegrated. His only option was surgery.
''At that point, my back was so messed up I pretty much couldn't play anymore,'' Goosen said Wednesday at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. ''It was impossible to go through 18 holes without getting spasms in the back and struggling to hit some shots on certain lies. ... At that stage, I pretty much felt like my career was over.''
The disc replacement surgery saved him.
He was walking without pain a month later, hitting wedges in December and decided over Christmas he was ready to start playing. Goosen returned at the Volvo Golf Champions in his native South Africa last month and tied for 20th, missed the cut in the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters and now is ready to go.
''It's nice to be back here in America,'' Goosen said. ''My focus is to play a full schedule in America this year and get back into the swing of things.''
He has a long way to go still.
Goosen is exempt only for the U.S. Open, which he last won at Shinnecock Hills in 2004. Once part of the ''Big Five'' with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh, he has fallen to No. 119 in the world and is no longer eligible for some of the biggest events – two World Golf Championships and the Masters in the next two months.
In his favor are good health and loads of optimism.
''I feel 20 years younger coming in this year. I feel great,'' he said. ''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 my back will hold up with this new disc. I think I'm first ever professional golfer that's had a disc replacement that plays on the tours. So we'll see how it will hold up in the next few months playing a lot and getting back into the swing things.''