WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Joseph Bramlett surmises that every week on the PGA Tour a different player could emerge on the leader board with a story about his bad back. And already in the season opener, A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, we have the emotional return of Kevin Chappell, who fired a 59 in Friday’s second round in his first tour event after a 10-month layoff.
“Yeah, I think it was great to see what he did,” Bramlett said of Chappell. “I thought it spoke to his confidence to be able to come out having not competed and get in that position and just believe in yourself the whole way through.
“I feel bad for him, because no matter what amount of time it takes [to rehab] it feels like a lifetime.”
Bramlett would like a piece of that. Not so much the score. He was plenty satisfied with a third-round five-under 65 Saturday on a breezy afternoon at the Old White TPC that has given him an outside chance at victory and a solid shot at posting his first career top 10 on the PGA Tour.
No, where Bramlett is a tad envious is Chappell's time on the sidelines. For the one-time Stanford University standout, the wait was an agonizing, atrophying 4½ years.
In June of 2013 while competing on the Korn Ferry Tour, Bramlett suffered an annular tear to his L4 and L5 discs, which is a painful and debilitating injury. He consulted 15 spinal surgeons who offered a unanimous opinion: an operation would more than likely end his career. For three-plus years, as he sought an answer, he would rest, try to rehab, even try to play a bit, and then suffer a setback.
Dark days turned into many dark months. “Yeah, I’ve had those moments,” he said of the emotional toll his injury was inflicting.
His fortunes finally turned thanks to swing instructor John Scott Rattan, who works out of Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., and physical therapist Cody Fowler, based in Los Gatos, Calif., about 20 minutes from Bramlett’s home in San Jose. Without going into too many details, Rattan helped Bramlett rebuild his swing so he used his feet and hips properly, and Fowler worked on his flexibility, which was the source of his problems.
“It was just a ticking time bomb,” Bramlett, 31, said of his back injury. “I didn't realize that I was putting myself at risk like I was at the time, but, yeah, we had to rebuild everything from the ground up. I had to, work on my footwork, develop control of my feet, control of my hips, and then, yeah, just go from there.”
This begs the question: How did Bramlett, who in 2002 was the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Amateur, remain so determined after so much time and so many setbacks? He had only one season on the PGA Tour, in 2011, lost his card and was in his second year on the developmental tour when he blew out his back. He did try an aborted comeback in 2016, but that lasted all of three events.
He never lost belief. And he steadfastly refused to let his dreams die.
“It's been my dream since kindergarten to play out here. I've had a one-track mind,” he said. “This is what I've always wanted to do. From when I first started playing golf I fell in love with the game and PGA Tour. That was my dream my whole life.
“I wouldn't say I questioned myself through the injury until about three years in. I came across my coach and he gave me a new sense of we're going somewhere and we're making progress again. I've had great support from my family and girlfriend and agent, you know, people that are close to you in your life. They've really stepped up and helped me keep a good attitude.”
Bramlett returned to competitive golf again at the 2018 Panama Championship on the Korn Ferry Tour and just missed out on regaining his PGA Tour card after surviving the full season. “It's one of those things that you believe, and you're working towards, but [there are] a lot of setbacks along the way, too,” he said. “Even last year on the Korn Ferry Tour, I came up a shot short of getting my card in the last regular season event and the last Finals event.”
This year, however, he got through, finishing 22nd in the Korn Ferry Finals with three finishes of 26th or better to earn one of the 50 available cards. A week off, and here he is making his fourth start in a PGA Tour event since his rookie season eight years ago.
“I've always told my friends I don't cry happy tears. I don't get it,” he said. “Yes, I certainly shed some happy tears after my first [Korn Ferry] event that I came back to play in, and then when I got my card last week, I got a little emotional on the drive over here as well.”
Bramlett stands at 11-under 199 after three straight rounds in the 60s, just the second time he’s posted three sub-70 scores in the same event on the PGA Tour. Only a handful of players are ahead of him on the leader board.
It’s a good position. More importantly, though, he’s in a great place.
“Yeah. I've played nicely so far,” he said. “Just feels good to be back out here, you know?”