After more than two years of rehab, Joseph Bramlett is back on the golf course.
By Kevin Prise, PGATOUR.com
After making bogey on his 18th hole of the opening round at the Web.com Tour season-opening Panama Claro Championship, Joseph Bramlett was all smiles - practically beaming - as he walked toward the scoring tent.
That's because the score didn't matter. Bramlett had completed his first competitive round since June 2013, making some good swings en route to a 2-under 68. And after suffering through a debilitating back injury for two years, his body was feeling good. Those were the important things.
"Today was my Christmas morning," Bramlett said. "That 4:30 a.m. wake-up call couldn't come fast enough. I was checking my phone in the middle of the night for when it was time to get up. I didn't finish well, but honestly in the big scheme of things, I'm just so happy to be out here. I finally feel like I've got my life back, so I'm just trucking on through."
After two and a half years, Bramlett, 27, felt like a professional golfer again. It was a day that he wasn't sure would ever come. But with the help of a determined therapist and unwavering self-belif, it did.
It happened on July 8, 2013. After finishing T14 at the prior week's United Leasing Championship Presented by PTI, Bramlett was on the range at Willow Creek Country Club in Sandy, Utah, prepping for that week's Web.com Tour event. At the time, his focus was on having a strong week of competition. His focus would soon change.
"I got over a ball on the range, and I felt it," Bramlett said. "My back went out. I tried to go back the next day and play, and it fired back up."
The pain got so bad that it relegated Bramlett to lying on his back for days at a time. Suddenly, playing golf was not an option - it took all of his energy simply to get around.
Worst of all, he couldn't figure out what the problem was. He estimates that he went to 15 different surgeons, and everyone said he wasn't a candidate for surgery. He tried getting injections, tried resting, but nothing seemed to work.
"If I would rest, I would start to get better," Bramlett said. "If I started trying to swing, it would just instantly get worse and not go away."
During his college career at Stanford, Bramlett missed time due to a wrist injury, but nothing that ever brought his career into question. He was an accomplished player - Bramlett qualified for the U.S. Amateur at age 14, was an All-American at Stanford, and earned his PGA TOUR card at 2010 Q-School after graduating that spring. At the time, he joined fellow Stanford alum Tiger Woods as the only players of black heritage on TOUR.
Now, reputable doctors were telling him that his career might be over. Nothing was showing up on MRIs or CT scans, and they couldn't find anything to cut on, nothing out of place.
"That wasn’t what I wanted to hear at the time,” Bramlett said.
Then in September 2014, after more than a year of frustration, Bramlett heard about Randall Hunt.
Hunt, a Bionetics® specialist, had helped a friend of Bramlett’s correct a chest injury. Bramlett was skeptical at first – “beaten up by flying out to see so many people” – but he flew from his home in San Jose to meet Hunt at his office in Fort Worth.
Things had gotten so bad that even the plane ride was painful, and Bramlett didn’t bring his clubs, because he couldn’t swing a club. Then Hunt asked him to make an air golf swing.
“I didn’t know what his golf swing looked like, so I tried to see him make an air swing with his hands,” said Hunt, who played college golf at Pepperdine. “He took his hands to go back for a backswing, and he literally fell over and grabbed his knees.
“It was like, ‘OK, we don’t need to mimic that anymore.’ He had a hard time just sitting on my table.”
After the first examination, though, Hunt offered Bramlett some good news. Structurally, his back was fine. Rather, it was a neuromuscular dysfunction -- specifically lateral spine dysfunction -- that led to the problem. It stemmed mostly from working out incorrectly, Hunt said. It could be fixed.
“There was nothing actually wrong with his back,” Hunt said. “It was actually some lack of range in motion, and some tightness in muscle in his hips, in his shoulders … that was causing him to arch incorrectly on his downswing, which was leading to all of this pain.”
Hunt’s approach is unique in that he looks for neuromuscular imbalances, things that won’t show up on any kind of scan or X-ray, he said. From fall 2014 to fall 2015, Bramlett flew to see Hunt approximately 10 times – including a two-month trip in early 2015.
The focus was table work – “neuromuscular techniques with a table, where I can actually activate muscles, turn them on,” Hunt said.
But Hunt figures that 90 percent of the recovery process was exercising correctly.
“He had a really hard time turning into his left hip, and that forced him to overarch his back, over-laterally flex his back,” Hunt said. “So we actually worked on hip mobility, but a lot of people make the mistake of looking at hip mobility as solely with the hip. I gave him trunk and shoulder exercises that actually helped bring his pelvis into alignment.”
Career-wise, the most important step in Bramlett’s rehabilitation process was reworking his swing to withstand a multi-decade career.
To that end, they would go to Colonial Country Club (where Hunt is a member) and hit balls. Starting from scratch, Bramlett went from air swings, to 30-yard shots, to full sand wedges, eventually to the driver.
Bramlett’s prior swing plane was too upright for his back, Hunt said, and they worked on getting a more round swing plane – “to be able to swing more with his chest and ribs, rather than with his arms.” The goal was to cover the ball more for a more piercing ball flight, while most importantly “putting the chance of the back ever flaring up again completely out of the question.”
Bramlett believed in the process, stuck with the exercises, and gradually saw his strength return. In April 2015, he played his first full round since that fateful range session in Utah – 21 months later.
Last October, he was cleared to return to competition. Finally healthy, he knew he could return to pre-injury form.
“I knew I would figure out how to get back and play again,” Bramlett said. “Trust me, I hadn’t been physically practicing, but I was doing a lot of mental practice … watching the game, studying the game constantly, to try and figure out how I could get better once I got healthy.
“There was a little bit of concern as to when I could fully practice again, and that’s still something I deal with, because I still have to manage my days … I can’t do as much short game as I want to do. But I will get back to it however I can, and losing the game was never a question. This is what I do. This is me.”
Bramlett began the 2016 Web.com Tour season on a major medical extension, needing to earn $25,118 in seven events to remain in the major medical category for the remainder of the season.
He finished T18 in Panama, earning just over $7,000, an encouraging sign. Despite missing the cut the following week in Bogota, Bramlett firmly believes that he is on the right track.
As he should. He’s not on his back anymore. He’s doing what he feels he was meant to do, playing golf for a living again.
That’s plenty of reason to smile, final-hole bogeys be damned.
“I felt good physically all week, which was definitely one of the biggest things,” said Bramlett after completing his final round in Panama. “Riding the shuttles, the plane flights, carrying luggage through airports … I haven’t been walking a lot back home, so everything feels really great.
“Laying on my back for eight months, that’s a lot of time where it’s just like, you would give anything to play. And I have that opportunity now, so I’m more than grateful.”