When Bo Van Pelt first walked onto the driving range at Silverado Country Club this week, he got some curious looks.
“About 10 guys looked at me like, I never thought I’d see you again,” the 44-year-old said from Napa, Calif. “They were like What are you doing here? Are you playing?”
For the first time in 3½ years, he is.
Van Pelt, who has half a dozen worldwide wins across a career that began the same year the movie “There’s Something About Mary” was a box office hit (1998), is playing the 2019-’20 PGA Tour season on a career money exemption. His first start is this week’s Safeway Open as he returns to the tour for the first time since a torn labrum in his right shoulder abruptly ended his season—and nearly his career—just three starts into 2016.
It turns out that was only the beginning of a long, strange journey for the former Oklahoma State standout, who has one career victory on the PGA Tour (at the since-defunct U.S. Bank Championship in its final year of existence in 2009) and whose last win anywhere came at the 2012 ISPS Handa Perth International on the Australasia circuit.
It starts with how he injured himself in the first place. Van Pelt didn’t hurt his shoulder from the wear and tear of his profession. He did it trying to lift a heavier-than-expected backpack from behind the driver’s seat he was sitting in.
A couple of months later at the 2016 Waste Management Phoenix Open, Van Pelt opened with a pair of 68s. But on the weekend the pain intensified, and instead of chasing what would have been his second career PGA Tour victory he labored through two straight 74s. He played a week later at Pebble Beach, missing the cut before finally heading home to Tulsa, Okla., and the doctor’s office. The news wasn’t good: Van Pelt had shredded 85 percent of his labrum.
Van Pelt underwent surgery in Dallas and expected to be out a year. Things grew more troublesome, though, when doctors discovered a few months later that there were nine bone spurs in his AC joint. This required Van Pelt undergo a second procedure.
But when he tried to ease his way back into practicing, the pain continued to flare up. “It kept getting worse,” Van Pelt said. “This time last year, my hand was going numb, and I couldn’t practice at all. I thought this is it. I was coming to the realization that my days of playing golf could be over.”
Though he relished the time he got to spend at home with his wife and three kids, the way his career seemed to be ending was tough for Van Pelt to take. Over the course of 17 years, most of them spent on the PGA Tour, he barely missed a day of work. In 482 starts, Van Pelt has just four career WDs en route to earning more than $20 million. It’s not quite a Cal Ripken-esque streak, but it is impressive given the grind of professional golf.
He wasn’t quite ready to give up, though, and asked his doctor if they’d exhausted all options. That’s when he was sent to Dr. Greg Pearl at Baylor Scott & White Hospital.
One of Pearl’s areas of clinical expertise is Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a series of disorders that occur when blood vessels or nerves between the collarbone and first rib are compressed. Symptoms include pain in the shoulders and neck, and numbness in the fingers. Causes include trauma from a car accident and repetitive injuries from job or sports-related activities.
It also can be difficult to diagnose, but it turned out that Van Pelt indeed had been suffering from it. In January, his first rib was removed as a remedy.
“I was sore for about a month, but after that I could chip and putt and every week I’d see progress,” Van Pelt said. “By summertime, I still wasn’t full speed but getting better. I wasn’t experiencing pain when I hit shots. I thought I might be able to do this again.”
To prepare for this week’s Safeway, and what he hopes will be the rest of the season, Van Pelt played a simulated tournament on courses in Tulsa a few weeks ago, going 18 holes a day and through the same routines he would at a tour event.
How’d he feel? Pain-free.
And his game?
“I’d hit four or five shots in a row that I thought were pretty good and felt like I was back in my prime,” he said. “Then I’d hit a couple that would make me realize it’s been a while.”