REUTERS - Twice U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen will be standing a little taller at this week's Pebble Beach National Pro-Am after having back surgery last year to resurrect a career he thought might be over.
The soft-spoken South African had an operation in London to repair a disintegrated disc and with a titanium and rubber replacement now installed, he estimates he has grown eight millimetres.
"I'm feeling good," Goosen told reporters on Wednesday while preparing for Thursday's opening round in the pro-am celebrity event played on the picturesque Monterey Peninsula.
"I think I'm the first ever professional golfer who's had disc replacements who plays on the tours, although there have been hundreds of disc replacements on regular business people."
A seven-times winner on the PGA Tour, Goosen tied for 48th in last year's PGA Championship before he was sidelined for the rest of the season after having back surgery in London on August 21.
"At that point, my back was so messed up I pretty much couldn't play anymore," the 44-year-old recalled. "It was impossible to go through 18 holes without getting spasms in the back and struggling to hit some shots on certain lies.
"For me the decision (to have surgery) was not easy, but in a way I just felt it could only be better. I don't think my back could get any worse.
"At that stage, I pretty much felt like my career was over. I couldn't hit the ball anymore; I couldn't practise."
The operation has so far proved to be a great success, though Goosen, popularly known as 'The Goose', was unable to start hitting golf balls in practice until mid-December.
"First couple of shots it was obviously very interesting," he smiled. "You don't quite know what to expect. They were just sort of 70-yard shots, but I felt great.
"A week later, I started hitting drivers then really over Christmas and New Year I felt good and felt like maybe I should go out there and start playing."
Since then, Goosen has competed twice on the European Tour, tying for 20th at the Volvo Golf Champions in his native South Africa before missing the cut at the Qatar Masters.
"It's nice to be back, and it's nice to be back here in America," he said. "My focus is to play a full schedule in America this year and get back into the swing of things.
"I feel 20 years younger coming in this year. 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."
With Goosen's world ranking having plummeted to 119th, his main objectives this year include a return to winning ways and reclaiming a place in the top 50.
"I still feel that I have events to win out here," said the South African, whose most recent victory came at the 2009 Transitions Championship. "But I need to really play well now to get into the majors.
"I'm only in the U.S. Open at the moment because I've moved way out in the world rankings.
"So my goal is to get back in the majors and the World Golf (Championship) events and try to move up in the world rankings as quick as possible, but you just have to play good golf."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Ian Ransom)
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