Bo Van Pelt records first top-10 on PGA Tour since 2015 at Palmetto Championship at Congaree

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RIDGELAND, S.C. – With one great week at Congaree Golf Club, Bo Van Pelt might have transitioned from that inspirational 46-year-old still grinding away on tour to a regular contender.

“I hope so,” Van Pelt said Sunday after finishing in a six-way tie for second place, one stroke behind 22-year-old winner Garrick Higgo (11-under-par 273) at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree.

“That’s what I’m trying to be. If that inspires some people, great. Look, I’m trying to keep my job and trying to stay out here until I turn 50.”

Closer in years to the PGA Tour Champions qualifying age than to the ages of the majority of his competitors, Van Pelt is on the way to one of pro golf’s better comeback stories, if not yet one for the ages.

The Richmond, Indiana, native entered the week ranked 184th in the FedEx Cup points standings and 620th in the Official World Golf Ranking. Missing 14 cuts in 20 events this season weighs heavily on such measurements. Van Pelt, a resident of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has one top-25 finish and $176,356 in earnings this 2020-21 season.

PALMETTO CHAMPIONSHIP: Leaderboard | Money | Photos

“Not a ton of expectations,” Van Pelt said Sunday after a 3-under 68 to follow rounds of 69-71-66 for a 10-under finish. “I just had three weeks off, so it was good to kind of practice a little bit. My game felt pretty good. But it’s golf, you never know. My game had been trending in a decent direction, better than it had been a couple months ago.”

But the reason Van Pelt’s first top-10 finish since 2015 is remarkable is he missed about 3 ½ years from 2016-19 because of a series of medical issues so debilitating, he seriously considered retiring from the game. He has tour status now only because of a Top 50 career money exemption.

Bo Van Pelt
Bo Van Pelt

Bo Van Pelt hits out of a bunker on the 16th fairway during the final round of the Palmetto Championship in Ridgeland, South Carolina. Photo by Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

The initial injury wasn’t exactly golf-related, though the wear and tear of the sport might have set the stage for what happened in late 2015. Van Pelt was lifting one of his children’s backpacks from the back seat to his driver’s seat when he felt the pain. He stayed on tour schedule until the diagnosis in 2016.

The labrum in his right shoulder was 85 percent torn, and further procedures revealed nine bone spurs in his AC joint. Later, when Van Pelt was experiencing pain including numbness in his hand, Dr. Greg Pearl diagnosed Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and removed Van Pelt’s first rib to relieve compressed nerves or blood vessels.

“I didn’t play 18 holes for over three years,” Van Pelt recalled. “I had three shoulder surgeries, so I thought I was done, to be honest. My hand kind of got numb. Got referred to a guy down in Dallas named Greg Pearl, who looked at me and said, ‘I’ve got to take out your first rib.’ As soon as he did, my shoulder didn’t hurt anymore. I said, well, let’s see if I can get my game back in shape.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as picking up where he left off before the injuries. Van Pelt returned in September 2019 for the Safeway Open, his first start in 1,321 days since the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February 2016. “I think I didn’t appreciate how hard it was going to be,” Van Pelt said.

“When you don’t do anything competitively for three years, like stuff that we just did naturally because I did it every day, I had to start over. I thought I would kind of take back up and be where I was, and it wasn’t going to be that way. It was just hard work.”

He called it tough yet fun.

“It’s kind of like starting over,” he said. “When you’re out of the game that long, all your old feels aren’t the same.”

Missing cut after cut didn’t keep help, but he saw enough in his game to keep going.

“My good was still good enough. It’s just my bad was horrible,” Van Pelt said. “It was like all of a sudden I’d miss one 40 yards and make double, and then I’d play four or five holes really well and look like a real golfer. Once I got rid of the bad, I knew the good was still in there. Got to be in there more consistently.”

This week, he putted well and credited a slight adjustment in his posture and setup to “just kind of cleaned up my stroke a little bit.” He also was encouraged by his ability to drive the ball as long as younger generations of players.

His finish earned him $411,233, and best of all, he played without pain.

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