AP Golf Writer
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) -- 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 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 Champions in his native South Africa last month and tied for 20th, missed the cut in the 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 the biggest events -- two World Golf Championships and the Masters in the next two months.
In his favor is 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."
Goosen is one of several interesting story lines at a tournament where the star is always the course.
Mickelson is the defending champion and trying to match Mark O'Meara with a record fifth win at Pebble Beach. It helps that Lefty is coming off a wire-to-wire win last week in the Phoenix Open, which began with a 60 when his putt for golf's magic number swirled out of the cup on the last hole.
Dustin Johnson is a two-time winner at Pebble Beach and might have had three wins if not for that messy 82 he had in the final round of the U.S. Open in 2010, when he lost a three-shot lead in the final round with a triple bogey on the last hole, and it only got worse from there.
This is the final week for players to qualify for the Match Play Championship, and two-time Match Play champion Geoff Ogilvy is on the ropes. He has dropped to No. 69 -- only the top 64 qualify, if everyone plays -- and likely needs at top-five finish to get to Arizona.
Still in the tournament is Singh, another former No. 1 and Pebble champion, drawing plenty of attention for the worst reason. Singh told Sports Illustrated he used deer-antler spray said to contain a substance that is on the banned list of the PGA Tour's anti-doping policy.
Singh admitted to using it in a statement, and under the policy, an admission is equal to a failed drug test. Sanctions have not been announced. The tour has yet to comment, though PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is in town this week. If the 49-year-old Fijian is to be suspended, it would not likely be this week.
And then there's Lee Westwood.
He joined the PGA Tour again, and this time the 39-year-old Englishman is serious about it. He moved his family to Florida during the holidays, his kids are in school and Westwood is looking forward to a season of playing both the PGA Tour and European Tour without the taxing travel.